Bangkok, Thailand. Sept 27: Thailand’s Supreme Court sentenced fugitive former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in absentia to five years in prison today, Wednesday, for mismanaging a rice subsidy scheme that cost the country billions of dollars. Yingluck Shinawatra had faced up to 10 years in prison for negligence over the costly scheme that had helped get her elected in 2011.
Yingluck Shinawatra 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 Shinawatra had pleaded innocent and had accused the military government of political persecution.
Nine judges voted unanimously to find Yingluck Shinawatra 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.
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 Shinawatra’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 Shinawatra was banned from politics for five years in 2015 but remained the unofficial face of the party and the populist movement that supports it.
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, various news media reported last month that she had fled to Dubai where Thaksin Shinawatra 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 reporters 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 Shinawatra’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 Shinawatra 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 Shinawatra 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.
Former Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra Now A Fugitive
Bangkok, Thailand. On Friday, an arrest warrant was issued against the former Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. The search is on for Thailand’s former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra after she failed to appear for a court verdict in a criminal case that could send her to prison for 10 years. The 50-year-old Yingluck Shinawatra’s trial is about a subsidy program for rice farmers that had led to losses of about $8 billion.
Yingluck Shinawatra reportedly fled from Thailand to Dubai. She allegedly escaped on Aug. 23 with her 15-year-old son over Singapore and flew from there directly to Dubai.
Yingluck, 50, who became Thailand’s first female prime minister when her party swept elections in 2011, is accused of negligence in overseeing a money-losing rice subsidy programme. She pleaded innocent and decried the charges as politically motivated.
A verdict had been expected on Friday as thousands of Yingluck supporters gathered outside the court and thousands of police stood guard. But she never appeared and a judge read out a statement saying her lawyers had informed the court she could not attend because of an earache.
The judge said the court did not believe the excuse, however, because no official medical verification was provided. He said a warrant would be issued for her arrest and announced the trial would be postponed until September 27.
Norrawit Larlaeng, Yingluck’s lawyer, said he had no details on her whereabouts. “I was told this morning that she was ill, that she had vertigo, that she felt dizzy, so I requested the postponement… That’s all I have to say.”
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military chief who engineered the 2014 overthrow of Yingluck’s government, said the junta was “looking for her”.
“If she’s not guilty, she should stay and fight the case,” Prayuth said. “If she’s not here, what does that tell you? Will she still say that she didn’t get justice?”
The trial is the latest chapter in a decade-long struggle by the nation’s elite minority to crush the powerful political machine founded by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup. Thaksin has lived in Dubai since fleeing a corruption conviction.
Yingluck’s former commerce minister was jailed in a related case for 42 years on Friday.
Photo: Thailand’s former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra
In the past, the UAE had been the destination for several politicians seeking refuge.
In 2003, shortly after a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein, his former Minister of Information Muhammad Al-Sahaf, known as “Baghdad Bob” or “Comical Ali,” fled to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi.
Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Bhutto relocated to Dubai after she lost elections in 1997, where she resided with her family until her return to her country in 2007.