Nepal Has Dislike for Its Likely Heir

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bodies of two kings have gone up in the flames of funeral pyres in the past week, so Nepalese have a wary eye on the prince presumed to now be next in line for the throne.

Many don't like what they see.

King Gyanendra, who ascended the throne Monday after 10 members of the royal family died in a mysterious palace massacre, has only one son, Prince Paras, 26. The prince has a reputation as a gambler and carouser--and worse.

Long before the rioting and curfews that have paralyzed this capital since the killings Friday, angry protesters were in the streets last summer after a leading local newspaper accused the prince of killing a popular Nepalese songwriter and musician in a hit-and-run accident.

Festering suspicions that the palace covered up the truth behind the accident and other questions about Paras' character help explain angry protests in Katmandu's streets after his father was crowned, said political analyst Lok Raj Baral.

"I think that is the main issue, because his son is described as a very wild person and several incidents were reported by the local press," Baral, a political science professor at Katmandu's Tribhuvan University, said in an interview Tuesday.

"There was a big hue and cry, a lot of demonstrations against him, even just a few months ago," Baral said.

Paras was a good friend of Crown Prince Dipendra, the prime suspect in the shooting massacre of the king and his immediate family after what initial reports said was a dispute over Dipendra's choice of a bride. Dipendra died Monday of the wounds he suffered after reportedly turning the gun on himself.

Conspiracy theories are multiplying by the day amid the conflicting accounts from the government, military and royal palace about what happened Friday night, and Paras is a popular target of suspicion.

Gyanendra promised Monday that a three-person committee headed by the chief justice of Nepal's Supreme Court will investigate.

But the investigation's credibility was already in doubt Tuesday as Communist opposition leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, who was appointed by the king to the probe, refused to join the panel.

"It's not formed in a transparent manner, in accordance with existing laws and constitutional provisions," Nepal said in a statement Tuesday. His United Marxist-Leninist Party said it is still ready to support a committee that it finds acceptable.

At least one person was killed and 12 suffered bullet wounds Tuesday on Katmandu's streets, police said today, despite a 12-hour curfew imposed at noon. The government can't shut down the capital indefinitely, and the investigation isn't expected to silence charges of a conspiracy.

As the king's only son, Paras is considered the most likely heir to the throne. Baral noted, however, that he has not officially been named crown prince; Gyanendra has only announced that his wife is queen.

If Paras becomes crown prince, the state council, which decides any succession to the throne, could, by unanimous vote, rule him unfit, Baral said. But that would be difficult, he added.

The Katmandu Post accused the prince of responsibility after a vehicle struck Praveen Gurung as the singer rode a motorcycle near the eastern gate of the royal palace Aug. 6. Gurung died in a hospital less than 30 minutes later.

The Post, quoting an unidentified police source, said the vehicle was a blue Mitsubishi Pajero sport-utility vehicle registered to the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, an environmental group headed by Paras' father.

The prince had been partying at the X-Zone Disco, got into a fight and left when police arrived, according to the Post.

A police car chased a vehicle from the accident scene and radioed the license plate number of the conservation trust car three times, but police reports later listed the vehicle as "unidentified," the newspaper said.

The driver got away and Paras later arrived at a police station in a friend's white car, "pointed a gun at the police officer on duty" and told him "to keep his mouth shut about the accident," the newspaper added, quoting its unnamed source.

Five days later, a soldier named Khadga Bahadur Bhujel turned himself in to police and confessed to being the driver of the Pajero. He had no official connection to the conservation group or the palace, and usually drove a rented pickup truck.

Suspicions grew that hush money may have been paid to protect the prince when the dead musician's widow, Shanti Gurung, called a news conference Aug. 19 and asked "everyone, including the press, to stop accusing anyone for the murder of my husband."

In a press release the previous day, Shanti Gurung said she had met Bhujel in jail, where he promised to pay for the education of her two sons and "look after" her.

Members of parliament called for the government to lift Paras' royal immunity from prosecution, protesters demanded justice, and more than 500,000 people signed a petition calling on the palace to have the prince prosecuted.

Nothing happened. On Sept. 3, the government announced it had decided to drop the case against Bhujel.

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Siddartha Barua in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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