The decision by the Federal Shariat Court was yet another twist in the case of Mukhtar Mai, a 33-year-old woman who said she was raped in June 2003 after elders in her village ordered the attack as punishment for her brother's alleged illicit affair with a woman from another family.
"We welcome the decision, and we know our case is strong," said Ramzan Khalid Joya, Mai's lawyer. An attorney for the men, Mohammed Yaqub, said he had not yet had time to study the decision and would have no comment.
Six men were sentenced to death in August 2003, but on March 3 the sentences of five of them were overturned. A sixth man had his death sentence reduced to life in prison.
That decision produced a firestorm of criticism from human rights groups both in Pakistan and around the world. Mai, who has won praise for her bravery in coming forward to denounce the attack, wept as the ruling was read out.
Thousands of Pakistani women rallied in Multan earlier this week demanding justice and protection for Mai, who said she fears the men would seek revenge if released. The Canadian High Commissioner on Tuesday visited Mai in Meerwala, a village about 350 miles southwest of the capital, Islamabad, to pledge money for a school she runs.
In its decision Friday, the Federal Shariat Court ruled on technical grounds that the Multan tribunal had no powers to hear the case. It said it alone had the power to rule on appeals in rape cases.
The court did not indicate when it would hear the appeal. All six men remain in jail.
Babar Awan, a senior advocate in Islamabad, said the ruling effectively annuls the Multan court's decision.
"The appellants went to the wrong forum to make the appeal against their convictions," he said.
Mai denies that her 13-year-old brother ever had illicit relations with the woman, and says the village council's decision to order her rape was made to cover up a sexual assault on the boy by men from Mastoi clan, which enjoys local power.