Ex-PM of Thailand flees ahead of verdict

Immigration police commissioner Natthathorn Prohsunthorn said he had no information of Ms Yingluck’s departure through any legal channel

Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra fled the country ahead of a court verdict over a rice subsidy scheme.

A judge says she asked for sick leave, blaming an ear problem.

"She has definitely left Thailand", one source, who is also a member of her Puea Thai party, told Reuters news agency.

Regardless of whether she is found guilty or innocent, Yingluck will not be able to run in that election because she was banned from politics for five years in 2015 by the junta's legislature for alleged graft in the rice-purchasing program.

The date of her departure is unclear, but a close aide earlier said that she had left the country by Thursday.

Yingluck last commented on social media on Thursday, saying on her Facebook page that she would not be able to meet supporters at court because of tight security.

The judge said the court did not believe the excuse because no official medical verification was provided.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military chief who engineered the 2014 coup to overthrow Yingluck's government, said he did not know where she was and the government was "looking for her". Friday's final verdict might have had the power to throw the kingdom stability into an ugly division.

The court also ordered the seizure of her 30 million baht ($900,360) bail bond.

The trial is now due to resume September 27, and if Yingluck fails to appear, she is likely to be convicted in absentia.

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If Ms Yingluck had been sent to jail she would have become a heroine, possibly stoking fresh unrest in the country.

"I don't have the skill", Yingluck's older sister, Monthathip Kovitcharoenkul, 58, a businesswoman who had been talked about as a potential candidate, told reporters. "We can not ask her to donate all her life to the fight [for democracy]", she said.

Thousands of Yingluck supporters gathered outside the court in Bangkok on Friday where Yingluck was due to hear a verdict in a negligence trial against her involving a rice-buying policy of her administration. "Will she still say that she didn't get justice?"

The trial is the latest chapter in a decadelong struggle by the nation's elite minority to crush the powerful political machine created by Thaksin, a billionaire populist who won over rural voters who had long felt ignored with promises to improve their lives.

Thaksin is blamed by Bangkok's elites for orchestrating the Kingdom's past decade of political turbulence, even though he has lived overseas for much of it to evade a graft-related jail sentence.

What it doesn't do is eliminate the Shinawatras' power base: the largely poor and provincial Thais who have had the numbers to deliver them victory in every election since 2001 despite the best efforts of pro-army and deeply royalist conservatives.

Prawit Pongkunnut is a rice farmer from the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima.

"We're here to give her moral support because she truly cared and helped us out", Prawit said.

That would have been harder if she had been sentenced over the estimated $8 billion losses on the rice scheme, but jail would have made her a rallying point with glamorous star power at home and overseas.

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