By Augustine Anthony
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Pakistani court sentenced to death on Saturday the killer of the governor of Pakistan's largest province after he had called for reform of a law against blasphemy, a defense lawyer and state-run media said.
Mumtaz Qadri was a bodyguard for Punjab province Governor Salman Taseer and shot him dead in the capital, Islamabad, on January 4.
Taseer was an outspoken critic of predominantly Muslim Pakistan's blasphemy law and Qadri is viewed as a hero by many people who thought Taseer himself was a blasphemer by calling for the law's reform.
Qadri had said he was enforcing divine law by murdering a blasphemer.
The killing highlighted a growing gulf between conservatives and more liberal elements in society.
Qadri's supporters took to the streets to denounce the sentence soon after it was handed down at a hearing in a jail where he is being held in the city of Rawalpindi.
"By punishing one Mumtaz Qadri, you will produce a thousand Mumtaz Qadris!" one man shouted through a megaphone outside the jail.
The court handed down two death sentences for murder and terrorism to Qadri, who has seven days to file an appeal, state television reported.
Reporters and other members of the public were not allowed in to the hearing and it was not known if Qadri attended.
Pakistan's blasphemy law mandates the death penalty and is often used in poor, rural areas to settle personal scores.
Taseer had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death in a blasphemy case, which arose out of a dispute. Taseer had said the law was being misused and should be reformed.
TEARS OF ANGER
Several hundred supporters of Qadri blocked a road outside the jail after the sentence was handed down and chanted slogans. Some recited verses from the Koran while members of the hardline Sunni Tehreek religious group waved their party's green and yellow flags.
A Qadri supporter, wiping tears from his face, said: "We don't accept this. We don't accept this."
Police were deployed at the jail gate to prevent any break-in. After Qadri was sentenced, the judge left through the back door.
In Rawalpindi's Liaquat Bagh area, where former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, about 1,000 angry Qadri supporters blocked a main road with burning tyres.
Shouting slogans against the government and the judge who sentenced Qadri, they forced shops to shut down. Stick-wielding protesters attacked passing vehicles.
"This decision was made to please the Jewish lobby," said Sahibzada Ata-ur-Rehman, a leader of the Sunni Tehreek.
Later, about 1,000 people protested against the sentence in the southern city of Karachi.
"Don't push us toward violence, because we're ready to give our lives for this," said Shahid Ghauri, a Sunni Tehreek leader, as he addressed the crowd.
"We reject this American decision!" he said as protesters raised their hands in agreement.
Two months after Taseer's murder, Pakistan's Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was murdered by the Taliban on March 2 for demanding changes to the blasphemy law.
After the Bhatti assassination, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said Pakistan was "poisoned by extremism."
Liberal Pakistanis and rights groups believe the law is discriminatory against the country's tiny minority groups, and its vague terminology has led to misuse.
A 13-year-old Christian girl was recently accused of blasphemy after she misspelled a religious word in a school test. She was expelled from school in the town of Havelian in northwestern Pakistan.
(Writing by Qasim Nauman; Additional reporting by Imtiaz Shah; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Robert Birsel)