Bangkok (AFP) - Thailand's former premier Yingluck Shinawatra was Thursday ordered to stand trial on charges of negligence over a bungled rice subsidy scheme, in a case that could see her jailed for up to a decade.
The decision is the latest legal move against Yingluck -- Thailand's first female prime minister and sister of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra -- that could spell the end of her family's political dominance.
The Shinawatras, or parties allied to them, have won every Thai election since 2001.
"The panel (of judges) has decided that this case falls within our authority," said judge Veeraphol Tangsuwan at Bangkok's Supreme Court, adding that the first hearing will be held on May 19.
Thailand's attorney general filed criminal charges against Yingluck in February, accusing her of "dereliction of duty" in relation to the populist but economically disastrous rice scheme, which paid farmers in the rural Shinawatra heartland twice the market rate for their crops.
She is not accused of corruption herself but of failing to prevent alleged graft in the programme which cost billions of dollars and inspired the protests that eventually felled her elected government and led to May's military coup.
The court's decision comes less than two months after the retroactive impeachment of the former premier, also over the rice scheme, by an assembly appointed by the ruling generals -- a move that carries an automatic five-year ban from politics.
Yingluck did not attend the Bangkok court on Thursday but will be legally obliged to attend the first hearing in May.
- 'Fight against injustice' -
In a statement on her Facebook page published shortly after the ruling she defended the controversial scheme as one which "lifted the quality of life for rice farmers".
"As prime minister I was always honest and served the Thai people, who voted for my government," she said. "I have not done anything wrong at all."
The army takeover last year was the latest twist in Thailand's turbulent political landscape, at the heart of which sits Thaksin, who was toppled by a previous coup in 2006 and now lives in self-exile to avoid jail on a corruption charge.
Yet his influence persists in Thai politics with Shinawatra-allied parties still drawing the loyalty of the rural north as well as urban working-class voters for their populist policies.
But the policeman-turned-billionaire telecoms tycoon is loathed by much of the country's royalist elite, which is backed by parts of the military and judiciary.
Puangthong Pawakapan, a Thai politics expert at Chulalongkorn University, said the charges against Yingluck were an example of history repeating itself given that multiple cases were also brought by Thailand's courts against her brother prior to his flight.
"It's quite clear the elite want to force out the Shinawatras from politics," Puangthong told AFP.
The uneasy calm that descended upon Bangkok after the coup ended months of often-violent street demonstrations has been interrupted by a few small protests in defiance of martial law and more recently by two small bomb attacks in the capital.
The decision to prosecute Yingluck will further "raise the political temperature" said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic at Kyoto University.
"It will inspire people to come out and fight against injustice and politicisation of the court," he said.
The junta has said it will hold fresh elections in early 2016 once reforms to tackle corruption and curb the power of political parties are codified in a new constitution.
But the draft charter has already raised deep concerns in the kingdom, and critics doubt whether it will bridge Thailand's political divisions.