Fugitive former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was sentenced in Thailand to five years in prison for dereliction of duty, has received Serbian citizenship.
The state news agency Tanjug reported on Thursday that the Serbian government granted her citizenship “because it could be in the interest of Serbia”. Serbian officials did not comment on the reason behind the decision.
A Thai Foreign Ministry spokeswoman declined to comment, and a senior legal official said authorities would study whether a deal could be worked out with Serbia to return Yingluck if she were apprehended in that country.
A government decree confirming Yingluck was granted citizenship was published in June in Serbia’s official gazette.
With the Serbian passport, she can travel without a visa to over 100 countries, including most members of the European Union. Serbia has applied for EU membership but will not join until 2025 at the earliest.
Yingluck fled Thailand in 2017 days before she was convicted of failing to prevent corruption in a rice subsidy programme that ultimately cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of baht. She and her supporters say the case was politically motivated.
She skipped bail and reportedly went to London via Dubai, where her billionaire brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, resides in self-imposed exile after fleeing Thailand also facing corruption charges.
Her current whereabouts are unknown but she has been spotted frequently in London.
Both Thaksin and Yingluck headed elected governments that were toppled in military coups — Thaksin in 2006 and Yingluck in 2014. Thaksin has citizenship of another Balkan country, Montenegro, which he received in 2009.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks said on Friday she was unable to comment and that the Serbian foreign ministry had not contacted Thai authorities.
While authorities have a general idea of the whereabouts and travel habits of Thaksin and Yingluck, getting either one back to Thailand to face justice has been problematic for them.
That hasn’t stopped a senior legal official from saying officials would explore the possibility that she could could be arrested by Serbian authorities under a reciprocal deal with Thailand.
Thailand and Serbia do not have an extradition agreement, said Chatchom Akarin, the director-general of the International Affairs Department of the Office of the Attorney General.
But he said a cooperation agreement could be worked out, whereby Thailand could return the favour by agreeing to send back fugitives wanted by the Serbian government in the future.
The process would start with Thai authorities sending Serbia information on Yingluck’s exact location to identify the place for Serbian authorities to apprehend the former prime minister.
Mr Chatchom said prosecutors have sought her arrest in some countries but refused to give details. “If there is more information about her whereabouts, we will handle the case under the process,” he said.
The Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions sentenced Yingluck to five years in prison in 2017 in connection with the rice scheme. After declaring that she was prepared to face her fate, Yingluck fled the country just days before her conviction was handed down.
It is widely suspected that authorities did little to stop Yingluck from leaving. They were worried that had she stayed in Thailand and faced the court, she would be viewed as a political martyr by many, and unrest would follow.
Prosecutors agreed in October last year that the case was final after she and prosecutors had not appealed the judgement.