Thailand's Supreme Court has issued an arrest warrant for former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra for failing to turn up to hear the verdict in the criminal negligence trial over her government's rice subsidy scheme.
Her lawyer asked for judgment to be postponed as Yingluck was dizzy and had a severe headache, but did not produce a medical certificate. The court deemed that she had the intention to flee and ordered her arrest yesterday, as well as the seizure of a 30 million baht (S$1.2 million) bond posted earlier.
The hearing has now been postponed to Sept 27.
A source quoted by CNN, however, said Yingluck left Thailand on Wednesday and is now "safe and sound" in Dubai.
Puea Thai party members, who had gathered in the court yesterday to wait for Yingluck, could not say where she was when approached by The Straits Times. Calls to her lawyer went unanswered.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan denied rumours that the military - which had kept Yingluck under tight surveillance since the 2014 coup - had helped her flee. But he told reporters she may have left the country.
Thai media also ran unconfirmed reports that she had travelled to Dubai, where her brother Thaksin Shinawatra - another former prime minister, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 - keeps a home. In 2008, Thaksin was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for conflict of interest. He lives abroad to evade imprisonment, but remains influential in Puea Thai.
Thailand's first female prime minister had faced up to 10 years in jail for mishandling her government's rice pledging scheme, under which the state bought unlimited quantities of paddy from farmers at some 50 per cent above market prices.
While this propped up farmers' incomes, it saddled government warehouses with some 18 million tonnes of paddy by the time the Puea Thai- led government was toppled in the coup in 2014.
Separately, former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom was sentenced to 42 years in jail yesterday for faking a government- to-government sale deal involving rice from state stockpiles.
Hundreds of Yingluck's supporters from Lampang, Kamphaeng Phet and other parts of the country turned up at the courthouse just outside Bangkok yesterday morning.
They swarmed around several cars slowing down on the busy road outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of Yingluck's convoy. It did not appear. As the hours went by, and the senior Puea Thai party members who had gathered dispersed, many supporters lingered.
"I feel she has not fled," 68-year- old Orathai Chuensam, holding tight to three stalks of roses she meant to give Yingluck, told The Straits Times. "I want her to return to look after us."
On Thursday, Yingluck had posted a Facebook message urging supporters to stay home for fear of possible violence.
She was propelled to the premiership after Puea Thai's landslide electoral victory in 2011, but struggled with the perception that she was a proxy of her brother.
Puea Thai's rice pledging policy infuriated Bangkok's middle class, who formed a key faction that took to the streets three years ago to cripple its government and pave the way for a military takeover.
Yingluck defied expectations by remaining in Thailand after the coup. She was retroactively impeached in 2015, by a military- appointed assembly, and slapped with a five-year ban from politics.
Yet, she continued to be Puea Thai's most popular personality in the country.
Her bank accounts have been frozen after the military government tried to fine her some 35 billion baht for losses incurred in the rice scheme. In contrast, the former business executive declared just 610 million baht in assets in 2015.