Thailand files charges against former commerce minister

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand's attorney general filed charges against a former commerce minister and 20 state officials and employees of private firms on Tuesday over alleged graft related to rice export deals with two Chinese firms, in a case that could see them sentenced to life in prison.

Boonsong Teriyapirom, a former commerce minister in the government of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and 20 others are accused of falsifying government-to-government rice deals between Thailand and China in 2013.

The Thai government said at the time it had sold 1.2 million tonnes of rice from its stockpiles to China to reduce stocks.

Thailand's anti-graft commission said the government-to-government rice deals announced by former commerce minister Boonsong had caused "huge losses" to the state and that the rice was sold locally and not exported, as claimed by the then-government.

"The attorney general submitted charges against Boonsong Teriyapirom and a total of 21 people. We present them as suspects for the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Political Office Holders," said Kosolwat Intujanyong, deputy spokesman of the Office of the Attorney-General.

The court will decide next month whether to accept the case. If found guilty, Boonsong could face a maximum sentence of life in prison and a fine of 3.52 billion baht (S$150 million).

The move comes as Thailand's Supreme Court is set to decide this week whether to accept a criminal case filed against former prime minister Yingluck over her role in a money-losing rice subsidy programme, a flagship policy of her administration.

If found guilty, she could face up to 10 years in jail.

Thailand's junta-appointed legislature in January banned Yingluck from office for five years after finding her guilty of corruption tied to the rice subsidy scheme.

The programme was criticized by exporters for distorting the market and dethroning Thailand as the world's biggest rice exporter. Yingluck has said the charges against her are politically-motivated and has defended the rice buying scheme.

Yingluck was removed from office in May, days before the military launched a coup that overthrew the remnants of her government. The army has said intervention was necessary to avoid further bloodshed after months of unrest including street protests aimed at ousting Yingluck.

The ruling junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, has said it has no plans to revive the costly rice subsidy scheme.