Beleaguered Thai PM defends herself against rice charges

BANGKOK Mon Mar 31, 2014 5:51am EDT

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leaves the National Anti-Corruption Commission office in Nonthaburi province, on the outskirts of Bangkok March 31, 2014. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leaves the National Anti-Corruption Commission office in Nonthaburi province, on the outskirts of Bangkok March 31, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Monday showed up to defend herself against charges linked to a ruinous government rice pledging scheme that could lead to her removal from office, the latest development in a political crisis that has gripped the country for months.

Yingluck has been charged with dereliction of duty for overseeing a rice-buying scheme, a policy that brought her to power in the 2011 election with the help of the rural poor but that has since run up huge losses and left hundreds of thousands of farmers unpaid.

The charges were brought against her by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) which, should it forward the case to the Senate for possible impeachment, would mean Yingluck being suspended from official duties.

It was unclear when such a decision would be made, but it could take weeks.

Yingluck spent 30 minutes at the commission's headquarters. Her legal team carried three cardboard boxes filled with documents to present to anti-graft officials.

Yingluck asked for more time to call on 10 witnesses and to submit further documents to support her defense, NACC member Prasart Pongsivapai told reporters following the meeting.

The commission will decide on Tuesday whether to extend the deadline.

"The prime minister submitted documents in her defense and gave a short statement," said Prasart. "We have to consider whether (those) witnesses and documents relate to this scheme. The commission will act with justice toward the prime minister and in a straight-forward manner."

Yingluck has come under pressure over the past five months from protesters who have occupied state offices and key intersections in Bangkok in a bid to remove her and rid the country of the influence of her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Protesters disrupted a February 2 general election, halting voting in parts of Bangkok and the south. The Constitutional Court nullified the election this month, throwing Thailand into deeper turmoil and leaving Yingluck in charge of a caretaker government with severely restricted powers.

Thailand has really been in crisis since Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup. The conflict broadly pits the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin.

Yingluck criticized the NACC last week for not giving her enough time to gather evidence and for fast-tracking the investigation.

Government supporters accuse the courts and independent agencies, including the NACC, of bias and say several judges are aligned with the conservative establishment.

Her allegations prompted the anti-graft commission to issue a statement defending the way it has handled Yingluck's case.

"As there were suspicions that Yingluck abused her position... the NACC has had to investigate the suspicions to get to the truth," the NACC said in statement.

"Yingluck has received just and fair treatment (by the NACC) under the framework of the constitution."

The protracted unrest has hit business hard. In a statement on Monday, the central bank said the economy was expected to contract in the first quarter after consumption and investment fell.

Thais voted on Sunday for half of the country's 150-seat Senate in a key test of Yingluck's government. A Senate dominated by anti-government politicians could hasten her exit but any decision to remove Yingluck would require the votes of three-fifths of the senators.

The results are expected in a week.

(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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