Islamabad, Pakistan Pakistan's highest court dealt President Pervez Musharraf the biggest political blow of his eight years in power, blocking the U.S.-allied general Friday from removing the country's chief justice.
The surprise decision to throw out Musharraf's case against the jurist spurred new demands from democracy campaigners that the president step down, clouding his future just as Pakistan faces a surge in violence by Islamic militants.
Recent fighting had overshadowed the judicial dispute, and the ruling likely will ease public anger over the ouster, at least for now. Musharraf said he would respect the decision, but analysts said Pakistan could be in for turbulent times if he sticks with his drive to stay in power.
In its landmark ruling, Supreme Court judges ruled unanimously that Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry be restored to his post and voted 10-3 to quash charges of misconduct that the president filed against the justice before a separate judicial tribunal.
The reach of the rulings was a surprise. Many Pakistanis had expected the court to reinstate Chaudhry but let the tribunal's investigation continue, and the verdict was widely hailed as a democratic breakthrough for a country dominated by the military for most of its 60-year history.
It was seen as strengthening the independence of the courts, which are expected to hear challenges to Musharraf's plan to seek a new five-year presidential term from outgoing lawmakers rather than wait for parliamentary elections due by January.
Critics also oppose Musharraf holding the dual posts of president and chief of the military, as he has since seizing power in a 1999 coup.
Cheers from lawyers who have led mass protests against Musharraf reverberated around the high-roofed Supreme Court chamber after a grim-faced presiding Judge Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday announced that Chaudhry's suspension was "illegal" and set aside the charges against him.
In accepting the verdict, Musharraf gave no indication of his next move.
"The president respects the decision of the Supreme Court," his spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, was quoted as telling the state-run news agency. "The president has stated earlier that any judgment the Supreme Court arrives at will be honored, respected and adhered to."