By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military-stacked legislature will decide the political fate of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra when it rules on Friday whether she was negligent in her oversight of a costly government rice subsidy program.
A guilty verdict could be divisive in a country still tense after a coup in May that toppled the remains of Yingluck's government and ended months of protests on the streets of Bangkok against her administration.
Yingluck remains popular among the rural poor that handed her a landslide electoral victory in 2011 and benefited from the rice scheme. If found guilty on Friday, she faces a five-year ban from politics likely to stir anti-coup sentiment among the supporters she can no longer represent.
Security has been increased around the parliament building in Bangkok where the vote will take place from around 10 a.m. local time (10.00 p.m. EST). Thailand is under martial law and public gatherings are banned. Authorities have been quick to stifle any public protest.
The charges against Thailand's first female prime minister concern her role in scheme that paid farmers above market prices for rice and cost Thailand billions of dollars.
In the third and final hearing in the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) on Thursday, Yingluck disputed the charges 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 on Thursday.
"This case that is aimed solely against me has a hidden agenda, it is politically driven."
Yingluck's supporters say the charges are part of a broader campaign by the ruling military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), to limit the influence of her powerful family and prevent her from running in any future election.
They say the NLA is full of her opponents and expect the assembly to vote against her.
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.
A decision to ban Yingluck from politics would require three-fifths of the NLA vote. A ban would have little immediate impact on Thai politics, as parties have been banned from engaging in political activity since the coup.
(Additional reporting by Kaweewit Kaewjinda, Pracha Hairaksapitak and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Simon Webb; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)