Pakistan's Supreme Court on Monday suspended a judicial inquiry into misconduct charges against the country's top judge that triggered weeks of nationwide protests.
The court ordered the suspension as it took up a petition from Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry challenging his sacking, a decision likely to embarrass President Pervez Musharraf's government.
Musharraf suspended Chaudhry on March 9 on allegations of misconduct and abuse of authority, sparking a wave of massive protests by opposition parties and lawyers who branded it an attack on the independence of the judiciary.
The misconduct allegations were being investigated by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), a panel of five senior judges, but Chaudhry argued that it was not competent to try him.
"The SJC proceedings have been stayed," Tariq Mehmud, a lawyer for Chaudhry, told AFP after the hearing.
Mehmud said the Supreme Court had demanded that Chaudhry's case should be heard by a full court comprising all of its judges.
"The SJC would not hear the case until Supreme Court decides the petition of chief justice," Chaudhry's main lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan said.
"The court's order shows that the proceedings so far of the Supreme Judicial Council were unconstitutional," Ahsan added.
The SJC was scheduled to resume its proceedings on Wednesday.
Government lawyers said the decision showed the judiciary was independent.
"I am not unhappy over the order," Malik Mohammad Qayyum, a senior lawyer representing the government, told reporters.
"We are saying from the beginning that judges are independent and let them decide the case," Qayyum said.
Asked if the government would appeal against the suspension order, he said there could not be an appeal against an interim order and added that when a full court assembled, it could decide the matter.
The decision comes in the wake of a judicial crisis that poses one of the most serious threats to the eight-year rule of Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
Opposition parties and lawyers have staged anti-Musharraf rallies on each of Chaudhry's eight appearances before the council in the past two months.
In a 132-point petition the chief justice also challenged the composition of the council, the decision to send him on forced leave, and the misconduct charges, lawyer Ahsan said.
A massive rally was held in the eastern city of Lahore on Sunday where Chaudhry was cheered by tens of thousands of supporters.
Opponents accuse Musharraf of sacking Chaudhry illegally in an attempt to weaken the judiciary to make it easier for him to remain in charge of the army after 2007, when he should give up the position.
Musharraf is also expected to seek re-election by the outgoing parliament for another five years ahead of national polls due to be held late this year or in early 2008 -- a move that could spark other legal challenges.