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Nepal’s Chief Justice Is Suspended, Deepening Political Chaos

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KATHMANDU, Nepal — The chief justice of Nepal’s Supreme Court was suspended on Sunday after lawmakers voted to impeach him on accusations that he removed the former prime minister and reinstated Parliament in exchange for political jobs for relatives.

The moves against Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana aggravate a protracted political dispute that involves pitting the United States and China against each other to bankroll infrastructure. The suspension also threatens to exacerbate a stalemate in Parliament that has made governing Nepal all but impossible in recent months.

The government has struggled to function for more than a year, with the previous prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, twice dissolving Parliament, citing a dispute over his coalition’s power-sharing agreement.

The Supreme Court stripped Mr. Oli of his duties and reinstated Parliament last July, ruling that dissolving it before the end of its five-year term was unconstitutional.

Shortly after that, the chief justice faced a barrage of accusations from Nepal’s legal community, including colleagues on the Supreme Court. The Nepal Bar Association said Chief Justice Rana had reinstated Parliament in a quid pro quo with politicians who promised to award his relatives plum ministerial posts.

He was also accused of influencing cases assigned to other judges, though he denied the allegations against him.

Last October, Chief Justice Rana’s brother-in-law, Gajendra Bahadur Hamal, was appointed to lead the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies but was forced to step down only three days later after protests by lawyers engulfed Kathmandu, the capital.

The lawyers also demanded Chief Justice Rana’s impeachment. Other Supreme Court justices boycotted the bench for weeks, upending most cases, with plaintiffs who traveled to Kathmandu from far-flung villages forced to return home without hearings.

Critics said justice was not being served because of the discord over Chief Justice Rana’s presence.

Still, the move in Parliament on Sunday for his impeachment was a surprise, with about a third of lawmakers supporting the motion.

“It’s for ending the prolonged judicial deadlock,” Justice Minister Dilendra Prasad Badu told reporters.

“Under separation of powers we played our role as the judiciary failed to deliver justice,” Mr. Badu said.

Chief Justice Rana could not be reached for comment on Sunday but told a local news outlet that he would “follow law and due procedure.”

Deepak Kumar Karki, the next most senior member of the Supreme Court, takes the chief justice’s place, pending a vote on impeachment that requires a two-thirds majority of those present in Parliament. The vote is not expected for several weeks.

While some heralded the chief justice’s suspension, others accused the government of taking action only in an attempt to delay municipal elections scheduled for May.

“Impeachment is a wild process,” said Bipin Adhikari, a constitutional lawyer and former dean of Kathmandu University Law School. “Parliament is already in crisis. This sort of act will further weaken the state institutions.”

The suspension is likely to deepen the confrontation between Nepal’s governing and opposition parties. The political chaos threatens $500 million in U.S. aid that Nepal, whose tourism-based economy has been thrashed by the pandemic, desperately needs to build cross-country electrical lines and upgrade roads. The aid has been held up since 2017, with Nepali officials loath to ratify the money — a onetime grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent U.S. agency — because it is unpopular among voters who see it as a threat to Nepal’s sovereignty.

The House speaker has refused to convene lawmakers to ratify the aid agreement, while the Maoist Party leader has met virtually with top Chinese officials. And members of Mr. Oli’s party have obstructed parliamentary action for months by shouting slogans and demonstrating inside the chamber.

The opposition prefers getting help on infrastructure from China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, visited in 2019 and vowed to enhance connectivity on roads, railways, aviation and communication under his mammoth Belt and Road Initiative. So far, however, no Nepal projects have begun.

Time may be running out on the $500 million American grant. Last week Donald Lu, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, told Nepal it had until the end of the month to ratify the aid, according to local news media reports.

The impeachment motion against the chief justice was initiated, local news outlets reported, after partners in the governing coalition agreed to support the ratification of the aid tacitly by being absent from the vote in the House. The remaining parliamentarians largely support receiving the U.S. grant, so the absence of members of the Maoist party would probably translate into easy ratification.

Some opposition leaders “don’t want to endorse it at the cost of losing public support,” said Rajan Bhattarai, the foreign policy chief of Mr. Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist).

“They agreed to impeach the chief justice, a cheap tactical move first, and then to push for ratification of the U.S. aid,” Mr. Bhattarai said. “The impeachment motion against the chief justice has been introduced in a planned way.”

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