Pakistan's top judge began his first full day back in office yesterday after a court rebuffed his suspension by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- a verdict hailed by key ally Washington.
Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry's Supreme Court victory on Friday sparked scenes of jubilation in several cities, with lawyers dancing and shouting "Go, Musharraf, go" outside the house of the man who has become an opposition hero.
The decision piled pressure on Musharraf as the nation reels from a week of bloody suicide bombings following the storming of the militant Red Mosque in Islamabad and ahead of elections due early next year at the latest.
The military ruler, who grabbed power in a coup in 1999, will now likely find it more difficult to push through possible changes to the Constitution to allow him to retain his dual posts as president and army chief.
Chaudhry, 59, started back in his old job the minute the verdict was announced on Friday by the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Musharraf had suspended the judge on March 9 "illegally."
"Consequent upon the decision of the 13-member bench, I have assumed the charge of my office at 4:20 pm," read an order issued by the chief justice.
The court had also dismissed, by a majority verdict, charges of misconduct and abuse of power against Chaudhry, including that he obtained a senior police post for his son.
Musharraf said that the court's decision would be "honored, respected and adhered to." The US said it was pleased by the pledge and hailed the verdict as being in line with the rule of law.
"I think this speaks well of the fact that Pakistanis are certainly capable of resolving even some fairly difficult, and what has been at times emotional, political issues in a way that is consistent with the rule of law," said Tom Casey, a US State Department spokesman.
It also "speaks positively of the growing maturity of Pakistan's political system," he said.
The comments came just a day after the White House refused both to rule out military strikes on Islamic rebels in Pakistan or say if it would consult Musharraf first, in an apparent snub to the General.
Chaudhry's supporters say Musharraf suspended the judge because of fears he could keep Musharraf from maintaining his grip on power and because he took on cases concerning people allegedly abducted by Pakistan's intelligence agencies.
The court's decision has increased speculation, apparent throughout the year, that Musharraf may try to make a deal with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, which would result in her return from exile.
Bhutto has said no deal is on the cards. She welcomed the reinstatement of Chaudhry.
"I think this is a judgment that will help defuse some of the frustration, but not all the frustration in the streets of Pakistan," she said on Friday, without elaborating.
Musharraf's opponents say he suspended Chaudhry amid fears that the judge would obstruct his attempts to defy the Constitution, which says he should quit as military head by the end of the year.
He hopes to get re-elected as president-in-uniform by the outgoing parliament this year.
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