BANGKOK: Thai ex-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra missed a verdict in a negligence trial on Friday (Aug 25) that could have seen her jailed, prompting the Supreme Court to issue an arrest warrant fearing she is a flight risk, a judge said.
"Her lawyer said she is sick and asked to delay the ruling ... the court does not believe she is sick... and has decided to issue an arrest warrant," lead Judge Cheep Chulamon told the court, rescheduling the ruling date to Sep 27.
Thousands of supporters - outnumbered by security forces - waited from dawn for a glimpse of Thailand's first female prime minister, but she did not show, prompting fevered speculation that she may have joined her billionaire brother Thaksin in self-exile.
Yingluck's government was removed by a military coup in 2014 and, if convicted for negligence over a rice subsidy to the rural poor, she faced up to 10 years in prison and a life ban from politics.
Her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra also a former premier, fled Thailand in 2008 before he was convicted of graft and handed a two year jail term.
If convicted for negligence over a flagship rice subsidy policy, she faces up to 10 years in prison and a life ban from politics.
"I just learned that she did not show up (at court)," Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha told reporters.
"I have ordered border checkpoints to be stepped up," he added, including local and major routes out of the country.
"I was told at 8am that she was sick from Meniere's disease and felt vertigo, so she asked the court to postpone," her lawyer Norawit Larleng, told a throng of reporters outside the court.
He added "I don't know," when asked whether she was still in Thailand.
A conviction for Yingluck, 50, would be a gut punch to the Shinawatra political dynasty, who have clung on in Thailand's treacherous political game for more than a decade despite two coups, deadly protests, a cascade of law cases and asset seizures.
Yingluck's flagship rice subsidy poured cash on her family's rural political heartland, but was beset by graft and led to billions of dollars of losses.
In a Facebook post on Thursday Yingluck asked her followers to stay home to avoid any incidents stoked by people with "ill-intention against the country and us".
Her previous court appearances over an 18 month trial have seen crowds gather outside the court, showering her with roses and chanting support - a rare sight in a nation where political meetings remain outlawed.
The Shinawatra family emerged as a political force in 2001 when billionaire patriarch Thaksin swept to power. He jump-started the economy and provided the most extensive pro-poor welfare schemes in Thai history.
But critics accused him of using political power to further his business interests. He remains loathed by the Bangkok royalist elite but cherished by the rural poor. A coup toppled him in 2006 and he fled overseas following a graft conviction.
Protests and court cases have hacked at their governments and finances, followed by the 2014 coup.
To many supporters Yingluck is finally emerging from her elder brother's shadow, drawing on a star quality absent amongst the gloomy cast of ageing generals who rule Thailand.
She has pleaded not guilty to the charges, saying she is the victim of a "subtle political game." But her enemies say a conviction is merited for a dynasty accused of graft and nepotism.
Historically the Shinawatras have been able to mobilise huge crowds of supporters - known as the "Red Shirts" - to take to the streets when the family's political fortunes have waned.
But three years of repressive junta rule has successfully quashed any widespread opposition to the military for now.