Islamabad : In a new twist in Pakistan's two-month-old legal crisis, the Supreme Court Monday temporarily barred a panel of judges from hearing allegations of misconduct and abuse of office against suspended chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
While welcoming the decision, which resulted from a petition filed earlier by Chaudhry's legal counsels, lawyers and opposition parties remained defiant.
"Let it be clear to everyone that our protest will continue until the chief justice is reinstated," the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Munir Malik, said. "Today's decision is only the first step in that direction."
President Pervez Musharraf suspended the chief justice on March 9 at the recommendation of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and referred the case to the five-member Supreme Judicial Council.
Chaudhry's defence lawyers in April questioned the authority and constitutionality of the panel, alleging that some of its members bore personal grievances against the embattled judge.
"The decision is a major victory for us. The apex court bench has endorsed our point of view that the proceedings of the Supreme Judicial Council were unconstitutional," lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan told journalists in Islamabad.
Following the move, the largest opposition party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), said it would take its lead from the lawyers regarding further protest actions.
"The decision is fair enough. However, we will follow the decision of the legal fraternity," party spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said.
Many Pakistanis view the action against Chaudhry as retribution for his earlier rulings against the government. It is also seen as a possible step to sideline him to prevent any legal challenge to Musharraf's bid for re-election by parliament in November.
His suspension sparked countrywide protests by thousands of striking lawyers that were quickly joined by opposition parties.
The judge took his fight further into the political arena at the weekend when he told a crowd of thousands in the central city of Lahore that "nations and states that are based on dictatorship instead of the supremacy of the constitution, the rule of law and protection of basic rights get destroyed."
But Chaudhry made no direct reference to the president.
As the protests against his removal swell into a political movement against the military leader, the Pakistani government has said the option of imposing a state of emergency remains open.
"The constitution provides provisions for imposition of (a state of) emergency in the country, but a decision depends upon the situation," Prime Minister Aziz told reporters Sunday.
Despite halting the hearing of Chaudhry's case, the Supreme Court must still rule on the overall legitimacy of the disputed five-member panel of judges.
The Supreme Court bench Monday recommended that all 18 of its judges, with the exception of four who sat on the now suspended panel, should give a final decision.