Islamabad, Nov 23: Pakistan's Supreme Court, stacked with judges friendly to President Pervez Musharraf, threw out a final challenge to his re-election and paved the way for him to quit as army chief.
The long-awaited ruling comes as the 53-nation Commonwealth suspended Pakistan, the second time since Musharraf took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, because he has resisted calls to fully lift emergency rule imposed on November 3 by yesterday.
''Dismissed,'' Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Dogar said after hearing the petition, the sixth and final challenge to Musharraf's October 6 re-election to be thrown out by the court.
Attorney General Malik Qayyum said before the ruling he expected Musharraf to be sworn in for a second term ''by the weekend or immediately thereafter''.
Musharraf's top legal adviser, Sharifuddin Pirzada, said there was now no legal obstacle to his re-election. ''Now the court has to give us this in writing,'' Pirzada said.
Musharraf repeatedly promised to relinquish his army post and be sworn in as a civilian leader for a second five-year term in what he calls a transition to civilian-led democracy once his re-election had been endorsed by the court.
While critical of his actions, the United States has given leeway to General Musharraf, an ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, to put things right before a general election on January 8 that the opposition may boycott.
Investors in the Karachi stock market welcomed the court ruling. Shares gained 0.25 per cent yesterday on top of 1.5 per cent on Wednesday, leaving the market 2.7 per cent below pre-emergency levels.
Bush part of the problem? Amid fears the Supreme Court would rule against him on the re-election challenges, Musharraf declared emergency rule nearly three weeks ago, suspended the constitution, sacked the chief justice and purged the court, installing more amenable judges. The move drew widespread international condemnation.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), charged with reviewing Pakistan's membership, said Musharraf had not yet lifted emergency rule and had failed to stand down as army chief.
''The situation in Pakistan continues to represent a serious violation of the Commonwealth's fundamental political values.'' CMAG had therefore ''suspended Pakistan forthwith from the Commonwealth pending the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in that country'', the organisation's Secretary-General Don McKinnon told a news conference in Kampala.
Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Dublin: ''It is not enough to move towards free and fair elections unless all the judges who were dismissed or suspended are fully reinstated in their previous capacity.'' British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Musharraf had told him ''he will do his utmost to lift the state of emergency in time for free and fair elections to be held and to give up his military role and responsibilities as soon as possible''.
Western governments fear that stifling democracy could play into the hands of Islamist militants.
Some Pakistanis say Bush's support of Musharraf is part of the problem.
''He should not think that what he is doing and what he is saying is good for our country ... When American people come here they feel very insecure -- these are the reasons,'' said human rights activist Shahnaz Bukhari, chief coordinator of the Progressive Women's Association.
Musharraf has started to roll back the emergency, freeing around 5,000 lawyers, opposition and rights activists detained in a round-up of opponents. Those freed include Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, who called for a poll boycott.
''It's a complete fraud. Participating in this election would mean giving legitimacy to Musharraf's violation of the constitution,'' Khan said, calling for the reinstatement of deposed judges.
Many of the judges and leading lawyers who represented the strongest challenge to Musharraf's authority are still in prison or under house arrest.
Musharraf remains in danger of political isolation.
Opposition parties led by Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister Musharraf allowed back to Pakistan, and Nawaz Sharif, the premier he deposed eight year ago and has kept exiled in Saudi Arabia, have yet to come up with a common strategy.
An opposition boycott could undermine the poll's credibility, but Bhutto may not want to give Musharraf's allies a walkover.