Judge Rana Bahadur Bam, who was under investigation for corruption, was being driven from a temple early in the day when the gunmen pounced, shooting him six times and injuring two others in the car, doctors and police said.
“He and a security guard were returning from Bagalamukhi temple. A motorbike blocked their way and there was gunfire at 11:08 am,” said Kathmandu police spokesman Rabi Raj Shrestha.
“He succumbed to multiple bullet wounds in his armpit. We will interrogate the (judge’s) driver to find out more,” said Shrestha.
The shooting punctured an uneasy peace in the capital, days after Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, which had been considering the case for Bam’s impeachment, disbanded having failed to agree on a new constitution.
The killing came as thousands of police patrolled the streets while feuding political factions vie for power in the troubled Himalayan nation, which has no legislature and only a caretaker government ahead of elections in November.
“The Nepal government will find the criminal. I urge all Nepalis not to be filled with terror,” caretaker Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai said after visiting the hospital where Bam was taken.
“A high-level meeting of security committee has been called,” Bhattarai told reporters outside the hospital. “We will provide extra security to all the high-level officials including judges.”
Bam, a Supreme Court justice for four years, was suspended from hearing cases after being accused of taking bribes in return for giving lenient sentences to criminals.
He was under investigation by the Judiciary Council and was due to retire in a year.
Nilama Pandey, a doctor at the Norvick Hospital where Bam was taken, said the 64-year-old had been shot six times and had been pronounced dead soon after being admitted.
“He had injuries on his chest. He died after bleeding profusely. Unfortunately, we could not save him,” Pandey told local television.
His bodyguard and a friend who was also in the car, Ram Giri, the father of popular Nepali comedian Deepak Raj Giri, were also shot but their lives are not in danger, Pandey added.
Bystanders told local television channels the gunshots rung out above the noise of traffic in the morning rush hour.
“We were working when we heard a huge noise. There were three of us and we rushed to the scene. Blood had splattered on the road. We didn’t see how the two gunmen arrived but they left on a motorbike,” one said.
A pamphlet from a previously unknown group calling itself the Nepal Vad Party was found at the scene, in the Lalitpur district, Shrestha added.
Security analyst Saroj Raj Adhikari told AFP the shooting came at a time of “confusion and uncertainty” in Nepal because of the country’s political crisis.
“The murder of the judge shows that no one is safe in the country,” he said. “If the current state continues, I think these groups are likely to commit more serious crimes,” he added.
Adhikari said criminal groups which emerged after the end of Nepal’s 1996-2006 civil war were finding it easier than ever to get hold of arms because of inadequate gun controls.
Shootings are still relatively rare in Kathmandu, however, although several public figures have recently been the target of gunmen with various motives and grievances.
In September last year, a Muslim community leader was shot dead in the centre of the capital, while five months earlier a Pakistani embassy official was shot in the hand and stomach but survived.