BANGKOK — Thailand’s military ruler said authorities are searching for Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister whose government he ousted in a coup three years ago, after she failed to appear for a verdict Friday in a criminal case that could send her to prison for 10 years.
Yingluck’s whereabouts were not immediately known, and her absence fueled speculation that she had left the country.
An official of Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party who is close to the Shinawatra family told The Associated Press she was no longer in Thailand. The official gave no other details, and declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Yingluck, 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 program. She pleaded innocent and decried the charges as politically motivated.
A verdict had been expected Friday, as thousands of Yingluck supporters gathered outside the court and thousands of police stood guard. But Yingluck 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 Sept. 27.
Norrawit Larlaeng, Yingluck’s lawyer, confirmed a warrant had been issued, but 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, also said he did not know where she was, and the government 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?”
Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said security forces had not allowed Yingluck to leave and are checking possible routes she may have used if she did. He said security officials monitoring Yingluck had not seen her leave her Bangkok home in the last two days.
The trial is the latest chapter in a decadelong 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, who has lived in Dubai since fleeing a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated, has studiously avoided commenting on his sister’s case, apparently to avoid imperiling it.
Thaksin is a highly polarizing figure, and his overthrow triggered years of upheaval and division that has pitted a poor, rural majority in the north that supports the Shinawatras against royalists, the military and their urban backers.
When Yingluck’s government proposed an amnesty in 2013 that could have absolved her brother and allowed him to return without being arrested, street protests erupted that eventually led to her government’s demise in the 2014 coup.
The junta that seized control of Thailand has since suppressed dissent and banned political gatherings of more than five people. The long-awaited decision on Yingluck’s fate has rekindled tensions in the divided nation, but the military remains firmly in charge.
Fearing potential unrest, authorities tried to deter people from turning out Friday by threatening legal action against anyone planning to help transport Yingluck supporters. Yingluck posted a message on her Facebook page urging followers to stay away, saying she worried about their safety.
Thousands of people turned up outside the Bangkok courthouse anyway, along with thousands of police who erected barricades around the court.
Prawit Pongkunnut, a 55-year-old rice farmer from the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, said he came with 10 other farmers to show solidarity with Yingluck.
“We’re here to give her moral support because she truly cared and helped us out,” Prawit said.
The rice subsidies, promised to farmers during the 2011 election, helped Yingluck’s party ascend to power. Critics say they were effectively a means of vote-buying, while Yingluck supporters welcomed them.
The rice subsidy plan Yingluck oversaw paid farmers about 50 percent more that they would have made on the world market. The hope was to drive up prices by stockpiling the grain, but other Asian producers filled the void instead, knocking Thailand from its perch as the world’s leading rice exporter.
The current government, which is still trying to sell off the rice stockpiles, says Yingluck’s administration lost as much as $17 billion because it couldn’t export at a price commensurate with what it had paid farmers. If convicted, Yingluck has the right to appeal.
In a separate administrative ruling that froze her bank accounts, Yingluck was held responsible for about $1 billion of those losses — an astounding personal penalty that prosecutors argued Yingluck deserved because she ignored warnings of corruption but continued the program anyway.
On Friday, the Supreme Court handed down several other verdicts. Boonsong Teriyapirom, a former commerce minister in Yingluck’s administration, was sentenced to 42 years in prison for helping secure a fraudulent rice contract. His deputy, Poom Sarapo, was sentenced to 36 years in prison for his role in the case.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department declined to comment, saying the court process and verdicts were internal matters for Thailand.
AP journalists Jerry Harmer, Grant Peck and Kankanit Wiriyasajja contributed to this report.