Thailand’s Supreme Court on Wednesday convicted and sentenced former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in absentia to five years in prison for criminal negligence in a corruption-plagued rice subsidy scheme that cost the nation billions of dollars.
Yingluck, 50, who became Thailand’s first female leader in 2011 and whose government was toppled in a military coup three years later, skipped her original Aug. 25 sentencing and was believed to have fled the country.
“The defendant was found guilty of the alleged offenses … and was sentenced to five years imprisonment,” Cheep Chulamon, chief of the nine-judge panel, said while reading the unanimous verdict.
One of Yingluck’s lawyers, Norrawit Larlaeng, told reporters after the sentencing that she could not be contacted since she had failed to show up at court for the verdict last month, making it difficult to talk about their next step.
If her team of attorneys decides to appeal, she would be required to appear in court, he said.
Rungrawee Charoensuk, 48, a Yingluck supporter who waited outside the courtroom along with about 20 others, said the conviction had been widely expected.
“I thought it would be like this. Otherwise she would not flee,” Rungrawee told BenarNews. “She told me she would fight all the way, but she must have known the result would be like this.”
After overthrowing Yingluck’s government in May 2014, Thailand's junta pursued criminal charges claiming that she had failed to stop corruption and losses of more than U.S. $5 billion in her administration’s scheme to buy rice crops from farmers at prices well above the market rate. The program failed as the global rice market plummeted and the government was left with warehouses full of overpriced crop that eventually rotted in silos.
Authorities have frozen 12 of her bank accounts.
Yingluck attended dozens of hearings during the trial that lasted more than a year and pleaded innocent, accusing the junta of a political witch-hunt.
Whereabouts in question
Yingluck has not commented publicly on the verdict. Her social-media accounts have been inactive since Aug. 24, when she told her supporters on Facebook not to gather at the courthouse the next morning over concerns of possible violence.
Sources said Yingluck had escaped through the Cambodian border two days before the originally scheduled verdict.
They said Yingluck then flew in a private jet and stayed with her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in Dubai, where he is in self-imposed exile after he was toppled by a military coup in 2006. Instagram photos posted this week by one of Thaksin’s daughters showed him in London.
After Yingluck’s disappearance, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who led the coup that toppled Yingluck, ordered security officials to investigate how she managed to escape. Last week, authorities said that three high-ranking police officials had admitted to helping her cross the border.
On Tuesday, Prayuth said he knew Yingluck’s whereabouts and would reveal it after the verdict.
A day later, he spoke about Yingluck as he briefed reporters on his scheduled meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington next week.
“She is abroad,” he said. Asked if she could be in a neighboring country, Prayuth replied: “Don’t know. Don’t you ask me.”