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Former Nepali PM Deuba convicted

Sher Bahadur Deuba
Deuba's coalition government was sacked in February.

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KATHMANDU, Nepal (CNN) -- Former Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was convicted Tuesday of corruption in a controversial case relating to a drinking water supply project, and has been sentenced to two years in jail.

The verdict was handed down by the Royal Commission on Corruption Control (RCCC), a hugely controversial body set up by King Gyanendra in February immediately after he seized power by sacking Deuba's coalition government.

According to lawyers in the RCCC premises, the commission sentenced Deuba and his ministerial colleague Prakash Man Singh to two years in prison and fined them both 90 million Nepalese rupees.

The two have been in police detention since April. Three others were also convicted and sentenced for the same offense.

Hundreds of Deuba supporters rallied for their leader in the capital's Lalitpur district, chanting slogans against the royal regime and the verdict.

"Down with the king. Down with the verdict," protesters chanted, as police restrained them from crossing the police line. Traffic was disrupted for hours prior to and after the verdict, as number of protesters swelled on the streets.

Tuesday's verdict ends one of the most controversial chapters after the February royal coup.

Many in Nepal, including opposition political parties, view the RCCC as a political tool set up by the king to "browbeat politicians into accepting his undemocratic and absolute dictatorship."

Deuba and Singh both deny any wrongdoing in the drinking water project, and have repeatedly accused the RCCC of political witch-hunt. RCCC, a body which has the power to investigate, prosecute and judge suspects, is comprised of staunch royalists hand-picked by the king. It reports only to the king.

Those same sentiments surfaced today after the verdict.

"All along we have known that this was a political vendetta against democratic politicians," Dr. Mrinendra Rijal, Deuba's close aide and spokesman of his Nepali Congress (Democratic) party said after the verdict.

"We do not accept the verdict, and we are determined to fight it out politically."

Before the verdict, as he was being led to the RCCC premises by police, Deuba told reporters, "even if they convict me, I am not worried. Jail is nothing new to me."

Deuba has previously served nine years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s owing to his pro-democracy activities during the Panchayat royal dictatorship, which was overthrown in 1990.

The present case stems from a contract for a road link to the Melamchi drinking water project just north-east of Kathmandu.

The project is being financed, among others, by the Asian Development Bank, which has committed $120 million.

Late last year, Singh, who was the line minister in the Deuba Cabinet, canceled the road contract and gave it to another contractor on grounds that the first one was delaying the project.

The Deuba Cabinet approved the decision.

But after the royal coup last February, the newly set up RCCC began investigating the contract.

It claimed to have found sufficient wrong-doings in the contract, and thus arrested Singh in early April, and Deuba two weeks later. For much of the hearings, the pair have refused to submit to RCCC questioning on grounds that the body is illegitimate and unconstitutional.

The bank itself conducted its own investigation into the case and recently concluded that no improprieties took place. But its report was rejected by the RCCC.

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