A Thai court on Wednesday sentenced to death two fishermen for raping and murdering British student Katherine Horton at the resort of Koh Samui after they had confessed to the crimes and pleaded guilty.
The three judges said they were imposing the maximum penalty on Bualoi Posit, 23, and Wichai Somkhaoyai, 24, in addition to 20 years' imprisonment each for the rape.
They said the sentence would send a clear message to both Thai society and the international community, after the "brutal and inhumane" attack which the authorities admitted had sullied the country's reputation and threatened its lucrative tourism industry.
"The crime they committed has terrified people," said one judge, Chamnong Sutchaimai, on reading the verdict. "To prevent others from committing similar acts, the court rules that the two defendants be sentenced to death."
If the sentence is upheld on appeal, which is an automatic process under Thai law, it will be carried out by lethal injection.
The police expressed satisfaction at the sentence, but the defense lawyer, Amarin Nuimai, described the sentences as "extremely harsh."
Nisit Rabeibtham, the senior prosecutor, said he was taken aback by the imposition of the death penalty.
"I was surprised because I'm a humanitarian and under the constitution everyone has the right to life. There's a chance it could be reduced to life imprisonment on appeal," he said.
Prior to the 60-minute hearing in the Surat Thani provincial court, the chief judge, Pongsak Tragulsilpa, rejected widespread speculation that he and his colleagues had been influenced by the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
The prime minister had called for the defendants' execution and said the case should be expedited as quickly as possible to end the bad publicity.
"I don't feel intimidated by [Shinawatra's] statements because under Thai law, our powers are separate from his," the chief judge told reporters in an unexpected briefing to explain his decision.
"[This trial has] happened very fast because it's the start of the year and there haven't been any other court appointments yet," he said.