BANGKOK (REUTERS, AFP, THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Thailand's Supreme Court sentenced former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in absentia to five years in prison on Wednesday (Sept 27) for mismanaging a rice subsidy scheme that cost the country billions of dollars.
Yingluck fled abroad last month fearing that the military government, set up after a coup in 2014, would seek a harsh sentence.
For more than a decade Thai politics have been dominated by a power struggle between Thailand's traditional elite, including the army and affluent Bangkok-based upper classes, and the Shinawatra family, which includes Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was also ousted by a coup.
Yingluck had faced up to 10 years in prison for negligence over the costly scheme that had helped get her elected in 2011.
Yingluck had pleaded innocent and had accused the military government of political persecution.
Nine judges voted unanimously to find Yingluck guilty in a verdict reading that took four hours, and a warrant was issued for her arrest.
The court said Yingluck knew that members of her administration had falsified government-to-government rice deals but did nothing to stop it.
"The accused knew that the government-to-government rice contract was unlawful but did not prevent it ...," the Supreme Court said in a statement. "Which is a manner of seeking unlawful gains. Therefore, the action of the accused is considered negligence of duty," it said.
A former commerce minister in her government was jailed for 42 years last month for falsifying government-to-government rice deals in connection with the subsidy scheme.
Norrawit Larlaeng, a lawyer for Yingluck, told reporters outside the court that an appeal was being discussed.
The Shinawatras had commanded huge support by courting rural voters, helping them to win every general election since 2001, but their foes accused them of corruption and nepotism.
Under the rice scheme, Yingluck's government bought rice from farmers at above-market prices, leading to stockpiles of the grain and distorted global prices of the commodity. Losses amounted to US$8 billion (S$10.9 billion), the military government has said.
Yingluck's Puea Thai Party defended the scheme on Wednesday. "The Puea Thai Party believes in the various schemes that the party introduced during the previous administration," Phumtham Wechayachai, secretary-general of the party, said.
Yingluck was banned from politics for five years in 2015 but remained the unofficial face of the party and the populist movement that supports it.
Kan Yuengyong, executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank, said Wednesday's sentence marked the end of her political career, adding that it was unlikely she would return to Thailand in the near future. "Politically, this is an execution for Yingluck. The verdict has effectively taken her out of politics," Kan told Reuters.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, said the Puea Thai Party was now "rudderless". "Pheu Thai officially becomes rudderless and will have to regroup under new leadership. If it is not dissolved and if its leader is more compromising, then maybe Thailand can move on," he said.
"The bottom line is that the Shinawatras have corruption problems and their elected governments are flawed but their unintended legacy of helping and connecting with the masses will need to be openly adopted by their opponents if Thailand is to move on."
Dozens of supporters had gathered outside the court to hear the verdict on Wednesday.
That was far fewer than on Aug 25, when the court was originally scheduled to deliver its verdict, only to find out that Yingluck had fled the country.
Though her whereabouts has not been disclosed by either her aides or the junta, Reuters reported last month that she had fled to Dubai where Thaksin has a home and lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a 2008 jail sentence for corruption.
Neither Yingluck or Thaksin commented publicly immediately after the verdict. Nothing has been heard from Yingluck since she fled the country, and one of her lawyers, Sommai Koosap, told Reuters outside the court on Wednesday that she has not been in contact.
Her once active social media accounts have also gone silent.
Photos posted on Instagram this week by one of Thaksin's daughters show Thaksin in London. None of the photos features Yingluck.
The leader of the military junta, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, said on Tuesday that he knows where Yingluck is but would not reveal it until after the verdict is read.
Ahead of the verdict on Wednesday, he said Yingluck was now in foreign country but declined to elaborate which one. "I do not know. Do not ask me," he replied to reporters when asked if it was a neighbouring country or not.
Thai authorities investigating how Yingluck escaped said last week they have questioned three police officers who admitted to helping her.
The generals have promised an eventual return to democracy but the date for elections keeps slipping, as they extend their clampdown on dissent. Even if a poll is eventually held, it will be organised under a new junta-drafted charter that significantly curbs the power of elected politicians and enshrines the military's oversight of any future government for the next 20 years.