In another setback to embattled President General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the release of a firebrand opposition leader sentenced for life imprisonment for defaming the army.
The decision for the release of Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, de facto leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League led by exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, came a day after Sharif petitioned the court seeking his return to country.
"The sentence is suspended and he (Hashmi) should be released immediately on bail if he is not wanted in any other case," said recently reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whom Musharraf tried to sack four months ago.
The court did not announce the reasons for its finding.
Sharif's jubilant supporters chanted slogans of "Go, Musharraf go," outside the court building as they heard the court decision.
It comes at a time when Musharraf is passing through what is widely seen as the most beleaguered phase of his eight-year rule.
He took a bad knock in July, when the Supreme Court ruled against a military leader for the first time in its history and restored Chaudhry.
Buoyed by Chaudhry's reinstatement, opposition groups are expected to throw more legal challenges at Musharraf in coming weeks, including over his plans to seek a second term in office in September or October from the sitting assemblies.
A leading Islamist politician has already filed a petition in the court seeking removal of Musharraf both from office and the post of chief of the army staff.
There is also public disquiet over the heavy death toll from a July 10 army commando assault on Islamabad's Red Mosque to crush a militant movement, which has been followed in turn by a spate of militant attacks and suicide bombings aimed mainly at the army and police.
Musharraf has been trying to reach a power-sharing pact with another exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, before elections due later this year or in early 2008. Both met secretly in Abdul Dhabi at the weekend but Bhutto insists Musharraf quit army to pave the way for any deal.
Hashmi, one of Musharraf's most outspoken critics, was arrested in 2003 for circulating an unsigned letter to reporters purporting to come from the army.
The letter criticized Musharraf's support for the US-led war on terror and called for an investigation into the 1999 Kargil conflict when Pakistan and India fought a limited war in the disputed region of Kashmir. Musharraf headed the army at the time of the conflict.
A court later convicted Hashmi and sentenced him to 23 years in prison.
On Wednesday Hashmi's leader, ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, petitioned the court seeking an order to stop the government from obstructing his return to the country after seven years of exile.
Musharraf overthrew Sharif in 1999 and sent him and his family into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000 in an apparent deal brokered by the Saudi royal family.
Government officials say Sharif agreed to stay in exile along with his family for 10 years under the deal but he denies it.