In a major relief to Pakistan's top opposition leader and ex-premier Nawaz Sharif, the Supreme Court on Tuesday declared him and his brother Shahbaz eligible for contesting polls, three months after they were barred from electoral politics.
A five-member bench headed by Justice Tassadaq Hussain Gillani set aside previous judgements of the Lahore High Court and the Supreme Court in the case.
The bench was hearing the review petitions filed by Nawaz and Shahbaz, the Chief Minister of crucial Punjab province, against their disqualification from electoral politics for their conviction in separate criminal cases.
"I salute the Pakistani people who got the judiciary free. The judiciary was practically taken hostage by a dictator (a reference to former president Pervez Musharraf)," an elated Sharif told reporters in his hometown Raiwind.
The verdict came months after Iftikhar M Choudhury, sacked by Musharraf, was reinstated as the Chief Justice of Pakistan after prolonged protests by Sharif's PML-N and the lawyers' movement.
Today's ruling means Sharif is free to contest national elections in 2013 and enter Parliament in a by-election, paving the way for him to attempt a return to power.
"I would like to thank God almighty. The people of Pakistan with great effort and struggle, fought for the independence of the judiciary. Nations cannot flourish with injustice. We want just system in Pakistan," Sharif said.
Earlier, the Lahore High Court had disqualified Nawaz and Shahbaz from contesting the elections. While Nawaz had a prior criminal conviction on terrorism and hijacking charges stemming from the 1999 coup against his government by Musharraf, Shahbaz was found guilty in a default case.
The brothers then moved the apex court against the verdict. However, due to their reservations about the previous judiciary headed by Abdul Hamid Dogar, they did not appear before the Supreme Court, a three-member bench of which had on February 25 upheld the High Court verdict.
Following the court decision, Shabaz was forced to step down as Chief Minister of Punjab, where Governor's Rule was imposed. PML-N accused the ruling PPP chief and President Asif Ali Zardari of trying to influence the judiciary.
After days of nationwide street protests, Zardari restored the pre-emergency judiciary under immense domestic and international pressure. The Sharif brothers then filed review petitions in the Supreme Court, which in its initial hearing on March 31 stayed the earlier SC order and directed Shahbaz to continue working as Punjab Chief Minister.
Sharif, whose PML-N pulled out of the PPP-led coalition government in May 2008 over differences on the issue of restoration of judges deposed during the 2007 emergency, said "the decision of reconciliation is upto the party".
"The agenda of PML-N is good governance which means the system that lives upto people's expectations and provides them justice," he said.
"The previous verdict was not accepted by people. Today's verdict has been accepted by the majority of the nation," the former premier, who returned from exile in 2007 seeking to contest elections, said adding, "I have good expectations from this judiciary."
Supporters of Sharif broke into celebrations after the verdict. A large number of PML-N workers gathered outside the courtroom, carrying posters of Sharif, who has emerged as Pakistan's most popular politician in recent opinion surveys.