BANGKOK (Reuters) - Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra appeared in court on Friday to face corruption charges that her supporters say are a ploy by the ruling junta to curtail the influence of her and her family.
Yingluck, whose government was overthrown in a 2014 coup, is the sister of ousted populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself deposed in 2006 and, though now in self-exile, remains at the heart of a decade of divisive politics.
The charges Yingluck faces in the Supreme Court stem from her management of a rice subsidy scheme, a flagship policy that helped sweep her to office in a 2011 landslide but which critics say haemorrhaged billions of dollars.
She was banned from politics for five years in January 2015 after a military-appointed legislature found her guilty of mismanaging the scheme.
Yingluck, who denies wrongdoing, faces up to a decade in jail if found guilty.
“I have prepared myself,” Yingluck told reporters outside the court. “I am confident that today we will do our utmost.”
Prosecutors in the case are expected to present four witnesses on Friday. The trial is expected to last until late this year with final defense testimony slated for November.
The military government says the rice scheme was riddled with graft and incurred billions of dollars in losses and distorted global prices that saw Thailand lose its crown as the number one exporter of the grain to India in 2014.
Thailand’s decade of political conflict has broadly pitted the Bangkok-based royalist elite, which includes parts of the military and judiciary, against former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin and Yingluck and their big base of support centered in the rural north and northeast.
Yingluck was greeted by more than 100 supporters as she entered the court.
“The prime minister of the people. You must fight,” some supports shouted. Others shouted “We love Yingluck!”
Under the scheme, authorities bought rice at above-market prices but encountered trouble selling it, leaving millions of tonnes in stocks which the government is still trying to shift.
Some of the surplus is now rotten because of poor storage. The government last year said it would sell some 6 million tonnes to the industrial sector.
Yingluck has defended the scheme. In a letter sent to junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha in November she said that the attorney-general was deliberately rushing the case against her for political reasons.
Critics of the scheme said it was a bid to lock in the Shinawatras’ rural support, with urban taxpayers bearing the cost.
Additional reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel