BANGKOK • Thailand's Supreme Court has convicted and sentenced former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in absentia to five years in prison for mismanaging a rice subsidy scheme that cost the country billions of dollars.
Yingluck, 50, 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 has been dominated by a power struggle between Thailand's traditional elite, which includes the army and affluent Bangkok-based upper classes, and the Shinawatra family, including Yingluck's brother Thak-sin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who was also ousted in a coup.
Yingluck had faced up to 10 years in prison for negligence over the costly scheme that helped get her elected in 2011. She had pleaded innocent and accused the military government of political persecution.
Nine judges voted unanimously to find Yingluck guilty in a verdict reading that took four hours yesterday. A warrant was issued for her arrest.
The court said Yingluck knew 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. "Which is a manner of seeking unlawful gains. Therefore, the action of the accused is considered negligence of duty."
Last month, a former commerce minister in her government was jailed for 42 years for falsifying government-to-government rice deals in connection with the rice subsidy scheme.
Yingluck's lawyer Norrawit Larlaeng told reporters 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 subsidy scheme, Yingluck's government bought rice from farmers at above-market prices, leading to stockpiles and distorted global prices. The losses amounted to US$8 billion (S$10.8 billion), the military government has said.
Yingluck was banned from politics for five years in 2015, but remained the unofficial face of her party and the populist movement that supports it.
Dozens of supporters gathered outside the court to hear the verdict yesterday. 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 have not been disclosed by either her aides or the junta, it was reported last month 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 nor Thaksin commented publicly immediately after the verdict. Nothing has been heard from Yingluck since she fled the country, and one of her lawyers, Mr Sommai Koosap, said outside the court yesterday that she has not been in contact.
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 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.
The Thai authorities investigating how Yingluck escaped said last week that they have questioned three police officers who admitted to helping her.