Two men get life sentence for killing Australian tourist

August 9, 2012
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Two men were sentenced to life in jail yesterday for murdering an Australian tourist during a robbery attempt in Phuket in June, at court official said.

Michelle Elizabeth Smith, 60, was stabbed to death near her hotel as two men on a motorcycle tried to snatch her bag on June 20.

Surasak Suwannachote, 26, and Surin Thadthong, 33, were arrested a few days later after fleeing to the mainland.

“Initially they were sentenced to death but as they confessed, the court commuted the sentence to life imprisonment,” the official said after the threeday trial came to an end.

The victim was part of a group of tour operators visiting the island. One of her travel companions also suffered a cut to her arm in the attack and was hospitalised.

Meanwhile, the victim’s husband, Geoff Smith, said he had mixed feelings about the verdict. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he was still digesting the news and was slightly surprised by the sentence because he thought they might be given the death penalty.

The prompt conviction of the two men was welcomed by Australian Embassy officials, but observers said there were still concerns about the level of crime in Phuket and regular thefts and attacks on tourists on the island – many involving knives and guns.

Australia’s honorary consul in Phuket, Larry Cunningham, attended the trial and spoke to reporters later. He said the murder had headlines Down Under, partly because hundreds of thousands of Australians holiday there every year. At any one time about 20,000 Aussies are visiting the island.

Cunningham praised the Thai police for catching the men and bringing them to court promptly, and said Phuket remained a safe and “wonderful place to holiday where Australians can come and enjoy Thai hospitality”.

However, this murder dealt yet another blow to Thailand’s image, coming less than a week after two Canadian sisters were found dead in a hotel room on nearby Phi Phi Island, showing signs of an extreme toxic reaction.

Smith’s murder prompted Deputy PM Chalerm Yoobamrung, who oversees the police, to order a crackdown on mafia groups targeting tourists.

However, the Phuketwan website noted yesterday: “Evidence of change is still largely unseen so far. There has been no public response yet to the call by Australian Ambassador James Wise to wipe all illegal weapons – especially knives and guns – from Phuket.”

Rattanawan Vatcharasorat wrote: “Michelle Smith’s death will always be a tragedy for her family and for Phuket, but her legacy may be the beginning of a better island for tourists and for residents, too.”

Australians – indeed tourists from every country and most Thais – will be hoping the government’s actions match its words.

Citing other crimes on Phuket, Cunningham also told The Age newspaper: “The major problem has always been the application of the law in Phuket, where assaults continue unabated virtually every night and there are little or no arrests of the guilty parties, mainly because they have patronage protection.”

Both the Australian Ambassador Wise and his British counterpart, Asif Ahmad, have spoken out about problems on Phuket, highlighting problems with tuktuk drivers and jetski operators who prey upon and rip off tourists. Wise urged Thai authorities to crack down on the use of weapons.

Expats living on the island say it is rare to enjoy a night out in Patong without there being some incident of violence.