BANGKOK, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will face criminal charges in the Supreme Court and a possible jail term, the Attorney General's Office said on Friday, in a move likely to renew tensions in the divided country.
The charge against the country's first female premier, who was removed from office for abuse of power in May days before a military coup, concern her role in scheme that paid farmers above market prices for rice and cost Thailand billions of dollars.
If found guilty, Yingluck would face a maximum of 10 years in jail.
The decision could prove to be divisive in a country still tense after last year's coup ended months of protests against her administration in Bangkok.
The capital's streets were quiet on Friday, as residents adhered to the military junta's ban on public gatherings.
Security was tightened around the parliament building where the military-stacked legislature was scheduled to vote in a separate impeachment case against Yingluck for failing to exercise sufficient oversight over the scheme.
Yingluck faces a five-year ban from politics if found guilty in parliament.
The former prime minister remains popular among the rural poor that handed her a landslide electoral victory in 2011 and benefited from the rice scheme.
Her supporters say the courts and National Legislative Assembly (NLA) are biased and aligned with an establishment intent on blocking her powerful family from politics.
The Attorney General's Office said the timing of the announcement on the criminal case was not timed to influence the political vote in the country's NLA.
"This case has nothing to do with Yingluck's impeachment case," Surasak Theerattrakul, director general at the Attorney General's department of investigation, told reporters on Friday. "It does not put any pressure on the NLA's decision."
Yingluck is not due to appear at the NLA on Friday.
ARMY CHIEF SAYS RESPECT DECISION
The government of coup leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has urged Yingluck's supporters to stay out of Bangkok this week, although a repeat of the protests that have dogged the country in recent years is unlikely.
Thailand remains under martial law, and authorities have been quick to stifle any public protest.
In a radio broadcast on Friday, Thailand's Army Chief General Udomdej Sitabutr called on the population to respect the NLA's vote.
Yingluck disputed the charges in an appearance at the NLA on Thursday and said the scheme boosted the economy.
"Banning me for five years would be a violation of my basic rights," Yingluck said in an almost hour-long address to the NLA.
"This case that is aimed solely against me has a hidden agenda, it is politically driven."
A decision to ban Yingluck from politics would require three-fifths of the NLA vote.
The NLA was hand-picked by coup leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and around 100 of the 220 members are former or currently serving military officers.
Prayuth has said he has not he has not ordered the 220 members of the NLA to vote against Yingluck.
The impeachment is the latest chapter in 10 years of turbulent politics that have pitted Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, himself a former prime minister, against the royalist-military establishment which sees the Shinawatras as a threat and reviles their populist policies.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and fled Thailand to avoid a 2008 jail term for corruption. He has lived abroad since, but retains a strong influence over Thai politics.
Since the 2014 coup, Yingluck has had to inform the military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), of any travel plans.
A political ban on Yingluck would have little immediate impact on party politics, as the NCPO has forbidden all parties from engaging in political activity since the coup. (Additional reporting by Kaweewit Kaewjinda and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Simon Webb; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)