ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a severe blow to U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's Supreme Court reinstated its chief justice to his post Friday four months after Musharraf's government suspended him.
Reversing Musharraf's removal of Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Supreme Court also ruled a series of government charges against him "illegal."
Moments after the decision was read, hundreds of supporters of Chaudhry, many of them lawyers, rushed out of the courtroom, leaping over chairs and pumping their fists as they chanted, "Go, Musharraf, go," their voices thundering across crammed hallways.
It was, by all accounts, a historic day for Pakistan. The court had rarely defied the country's political establishment in the past; its decisions could be counted on to legitimize military coups, such as the one that brought Musharraf to power in 1999.
Most in Pakistan saw the case as a test of the rule of law in their nation: Could a military ruler brush aside the head of the Supreme Court at will?
"When you go through the 60-year history of Pakistan, whenever a moment, a test came, somehow or the other we always failed," said Tariq Mahmoud, a member of Chaudhry’s legal team and a former high court judge. "But this decision gives us an independent judiciary, and with that, whenever there are illegal government actions, these matters can now be brought before the court."
The court's verdict capped a week of upheaval and violent challenges to Musharraf, whose position as the president and armed forces chief seems on shaky ground. The Bush administration has turned to Musharraf often in the years after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, sending billions of dollars in aid to entice Pakistan to crack down on Taliban and al Qaida militants thought to have set up bases in tribal areas near Afghanistan.
A month ago, the president of Pakistan had three main problems: armed radicals holed up at a mosque in the capital, the Chaudhry case and mullahs giving sanctuary to al Qaida and Taliban militants.
All three crises came to a head at the same time. Musharraf seized the mosque by force, resulting in at least 75 people dead during two days of heavy fighting. In the aftermath, several radical clerics in the tribal areas promised revenge.
Since Saturday, more than 155 people have been killed in a series of ambushes on military convoys and suicide bombings at political rallies, police academies and a mosque. The violence has stretched from the tribal areas in the west, to Islamabad in the east and down to the southern province of Baluchistan.
And then came the verdict against Musharraf's administration on Friday.
"Musharraf no longer has any ground to stand on," said Iftikhar Mashwani, a parliament member. "This was a revolutionary decision."
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz called for calm among a "difficult and stressful time" in a statement issued Friday through Pakistan's state news agency.
"I would like to emphasize that we must all accept the verdict with grace and dignity reflective of a mature nation," Aziz said. "This is not the time to claim victory or defeat."
Rashid Ahmad, a loyalist of the Musharraf administration, was less conciliatory.
"Let's see how they (the Chaudhry court) behave and how the government accepts it," said Ahmad, the current railways minister and former information minister. "I'm sure that President Musharraf will continue as president."
Musharraf provoked the judicial showdown by trying to pressure Chaudhry to resign in March. After Chaudhry refused, the government suspended him and filed a long list of accusations of misconduct.
Chaudhry had gained a reputation for ruling against the government on issues such as security forces allegedly abducting citizens.
Many in Pakistan suspected that Musharraf moved against Chaudhry because he feared that the judge would take up cases later this year examining the legality of Musharraf being both the nation's president and its highest ranking military officer.
Before the court adjourned to deliberate Friday afternoon, presiding Justice Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday said the decision he and the 12 other judges made wouldn't be in defiance of the military.
"We are not here competing with any other institution," he said.
But after the court reconvened and Ramday read the decision to reinstate the judge — arrived at by a 10-3 vote — Chaudhry's backers said that the ruling was nothing less than the judiciary taking a first, big step toward reining in the military and Musharraf.
A group of hundreds of men — most dressed in the lawyers' preferred uniform of black suits, white shirt and black tie — formed outside on the courthouse stairs and shouted in unison that "Musharraf is a traitor."
"The army general government has been refused its sanctity," said Ali Ahmad Kurd, a senior attorney representing Chaudhry, who had moments earlier been lifted into the air and, shouting of victory, carried on the shoulders of his fellow lawyers. "He (Musharraf) should resign, he should leave the president's house, he should go."