Former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra sentenced to five years in jail

Yingluck Shinawatra has been jailed in absentia. Credit: PA

Thailand's former prime minister has been sentenced to five years in jail for alleged negligence in a money-losing rice subsidy programme.

Yingluck Shinawatra - whose government was ousted in a 2014 military coup - said the charges are politically motivated and is believed to have fled the country last month.

Ms Yingluck was sentenced in absentia and her lawyers said they have no idea where she is.

The 50-year-old has argued that she is being persecuted as part of an effort to dismantle the political machine of her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon.

Mr Thaksin was also toppled from power by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of abuse of power, corruption and disrespect for the country's monarchy.

He is living in self-imposed exile to avoid serving a prison term for what he calls a politically motivated 2008 conviction on a conflict of interest charge.

Soldiers stand guard outside Thailand's Supreme Court. Credit: PA

Ms Yingluck, who inherited the leadership of Mr Thaksin's political machine and was elected prime minister in 2011, became a proxy target for his enemies as well.

The conviction was widely expected as the military remains in charge of the south-east Asian nation and the courts have a record of hostility towards her politically influential family.

The rice subsidy scheme was a flagship policy that helped Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party win the 2011 general election.

It saw the government pay farmers about 50% above what they would have received on the world market, with the intention of driving up prices by warehousing the grain.

Instead, other rice-producing countries captured the market by selling at competitive prices.

Vietnam as a result replaced Thailand as the world's leading rice exporter.

Prosecutors argued that Ms Yingluck ignored warnings of corruption in the subsidy programme and was guilty of dereliction of duty.

Ms Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, is also a former Thai prime minister. Credit: PA

A co-defendant, her commerce minister, received a 42-year prison sentence for concocting a false government-to-government rice sale, which was one of the allegations cited by the court in its verdict against Ms Yingluck.

In an earlier, separate administrative ruling that froze Ms Yingluck's bank accounts, she was held responsible for £174 million of the losses from the rice subsidy programme.

Prosecutors argued she deserved the personal penalty because she ignored warnings of corruption but continued with the scheme anyway.

Her critics describe the overriding motive of the programme as political, an effort to buy the loyalty of rural voters with state funds.

Mr Thaksin's supporters, who delivered him unprecedented electoral victories, believe his only offence was challenging the power of the country's traditional elite, led by monarchists and the military, and supported by the urban middle class.

They believe his popular appeal, earned by populist policies benefiting the less well-off rural majority, threatened the traditional ruling class' privilege.