ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Angry demonstrations broke out in Pakistan after a court on Saturday convicted and sentenced a police officer to death for the killing of a governor who had called for changes to the country's blasphemy laws.
The January murder in broad daylight of Punjab provincial governor, Salman Taseer, by one of his police guards was alarming in itself, but what came afterward was perhaps even more so.
Lawyers showered his killer, Mumtaz Qadri, with flowers, thousands demonstrated in his defense and even mainstream politicians didn't loudly condemn the killing.
Qadri has told his trial that Taseer deserved to die because of his criticism of Pakistani laws that mandate the death sentence for insulting Islam.
Taseer, a member of the country's ruling party, wanted amendments in the law and had defended a Christian woman sentenced to death under it.
The court handed down two death sentences for murder and terrorism to Qadri, who has seven days to file an appeal, state television reported.
The trial, which began a month after the killing in January, was held in a prison and was closed to the media.
'We don't accept this'
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.
Several hundred supporters of Qadri blocked a road outside the jail 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 tires.
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.Story: US 'threat' of military action unites Pakistan
Death sentences have been rarely carried out in Pakistan in recent years.
Pakistan, whose 180 million people are almost 95 percent Muslim, has seen an alarming spread in violent Islamist extremism since 2007.
It has been hard to counter because many of the groups — and the extremist ideology they spread — once enjoyed or continue to have state backing in some form or other.Story: Apparent gas blast at Islamabad hotel injures six
The security forces have fought back, but thousands of government officials, Christians, Shiites and scores of police and soldiers have been killed in assassinations and suicide bombings.
Taseer was a wealthy, polarizing figure, and one of few Pakistani officials to consistently oppose extremism.Slideshow: Pakistan: A nation in turmoil (on this page)
Members of his family have continued speaking out against militancy, and in August, Taseer's adult son was abducted from his car in the eastern city of Lahore.
'Poisoned by extremism'
The son's fate remains unknown and militants are considered likely suspects in that abduction.
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.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.