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Nepal's top court removes most of cabinet in blow to caretaker PM

Interim ruling comes as country deals with COVID and political turmoil

Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli speaks to Nikkei Asia in an online interview on May 21: The Supreme Court will begin on June 23 hearing challenges to Oli's dissolution of parliament.

KATHMANDU (Reuters) -- Nepal's Supreme Court delivered a fresh blow to embattled communist Prime Minister K.P.Sharma Oli by removing 20 recently appointed ministers, pending a ruling on whether a caretaker premier can make such sweeping cabinet changes.

"This is an interim order and the court will give its final verdict later," court official Bhadrakali Pokharel told Reuters on Wednesday, a day after the decision by a two-judge bench.

With the Himalayan country struggling to contain a deadly second wave of coronavirus infections and beset by political turmoil, Oli lost a vote of confidence in May as a result of factional infighting within his Communist Party of Nepal (UML).

Oli dissolved parliament and ordered fresh elections for November, while staying on as caretaker prime minister until the elections are held.

The Supreme Court is set to begin hearing dozens of petitions on Wednesday challenging Oli's dissolution of parliament.

In a bid to hold onto power and ditch opponents within his own party, Oli ealier this month dropped most ministers from his cabinet, and named 20 replacements, who were mainly members of a junior coalition partner.

The ministerial appointments had been "against the spirit of the constitution", the Supreme Court judges said, as Oli was only a caretaker prime minister.

The court's removal of the 20 ministers means the cabinet is left with just five members, including the prime minister.

"The prime minister had completely disregarded the constitution in making the appointments ... the court has applied a brake to this," petitioner Dinesh Tripathi said.

There was no immediate comment from Oli but his aide Rajan Bhattarai said the government would comply with court order, though he described it as "politically incorrect".

While Nepali politicians are locked in a power struggle the coronavirus continues to spread, with levels of testing and vaccination both woefully inadequate. Still, official data suggested that the second wave probably peaked in May. Some 3,703 new infections were reported on Tuesday, compared with a daily peak of 9,305 reported on May 12.

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