Thailand’s ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra insisted on her innocence at the start of a trial on Tuesday that could see her jailed for a decade, part of what observers say is a vendetta against her family.
It is the latest legal move against Yingluck – the sister of the fugitive billionaire former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra – whose administration was toppled in a military coup nearly a year ago.
A guilty conviction could deliver a blow to the political dominance of her family, but it also risks stirring up its grassroots “red shirt” supporters who have been largely inactive since the May 2014 coup.
About 50 supporters gathered outside Thailand’s supreme court on the northern outskirts of Bangkok, including more than a dozen members of Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party, a highly unusual sight in a country where political gatherings of more than five people remain banned by the junta.
Many burst into applause and shouts of “Yingluck, fight, fight!” when her convoy pulled up outside the courthouse for the trial, which is expected to last for months.
“I am confident that I am innocent and I hope the court will give me justice and allow everything to proceed in accordance with the law,” Yingluck said.
Yingluck spoke only to plead not guilty during the brief hearing. The court granted bail on condition that she not leave Thailand without written permission. The next hearing was scheduled for 21 July.
She is accused of criminal negligence over a populist rice subsidy scheme, which paid farmers in the rural Shinawatra heartland twice the market rate for their crop.
She is not accused of personal corruption but of failing to prevent alleged graft within the program, which cost Thailand billions of dollars and stirred protests against her elected government. The charge carries up to 10 years in jail.
Thailand’s military-appointed parliament impeached Yingluck in January over the scheme, a move which banned her from politics for five years.
“I believe a hawkish faction in the old powers … wants to punish the Shinawatras as much as they can,” Puangthong Pawakapan, a Thai politics expert at Chulalongkorn University, said.
“But keeping her in prison will definitely anger the red shirts even more.”
Other analysts say the mere threat of jail may be used to discourage the Shinawatras from re-engaging in politics.
Yingluck has said the rice scheme “lifted the quality of life for rice farmers” in the poor north-east of a country where subsidies to farmers have long been a cornerstone of Thai politics.
The army takeover last year was the latest twist in a decade of political turbulence that broadly pits a Bangkok-based elite, backed by parts of the military and judiciary, against poor urban and rural voters, particularly in the country’s north, who are fiercely loyal to the Shinawatras.
Thaksin was toppled by a coup in 2006 and now lives abroad to avoid jail on a corruption charge.
The former PM was in Seoul, South Korea, at a conference on Tuesday and said he had no plans to mobilise his “red shirt” supporters. But he called the first year of the junta government which came to power in a coup “not so impressive”.
He called on the Thai people not to resort to violence.
“No, we want to see the government be a success, but it’s difficult, as you can imagine,” he said. “It’s not so impressive yet.
“They have to work harder. They have to understand the world, and the mentality of the people who have been in democracy for many years.
“I think democracy will prevail sooner or later, but we have to be patient, and we have to be peaceful. Don’t resort to any kind of violence.”
The Shinawatras, or parties allied to them, have won every Thai election since 2001. But their opponents accuse them of cronyism, corruption and financially ruinous populist policies.
As a result, they have faced two coups and the removal of three of their premiers by the Thai courts, while several deadly rounds of protest have rocked Bangkok and weighed on the Thai economy.
Another former prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, a brother-in-law to Yingluck and Thaksin, also faces criminal charges over a crackdown against anti-Shinawatra protesters in 2008.