By Asad Hashim
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's highest court on Wednesday upheld the death sentence for the killer of the governor of the country's wealthiest and most populous province after he had called for reform of the blasphemy law.
Killings over blasphemy in Pakistan highlight a growing gulf between conservatives and more liberal elements in society. Since 1990, at least 65 people have been killed in cases linked to blasphemy, data collected by Reuters shows.
Wednesday's ruling was seen as a victory for human rights activists who say the blasphemy law, which mandates the death penalty, is often used in poor rural areas to settle personal scores.
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was shot dead by a bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, after he had sought a presidential pardon for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
Both the trial court and the high court of Islamabad, the capital, sentenced Qadri to death. He appealed to the Supreme Court against the decision.
"The criminal appeal filed by the convict is dismissed," the Supreme Court said in its ruling. "The appeal filed by the state is allowed. The conviction and sentence by the trial court are restored."
Qadri's lawyer could not be reached for comment immediately.
Judges in predominantly Muslim Pakistan are reluctant to hear blasphemy cases, as the presentation of evidence in court can itself be considered a new infringement of the law.
But while hearing Qadri's appeals, judges said criticizing the blasphemy law did not amount to blasphemy -- a small victory in a country where calls for the law's reform have led to several assassinations and those acquitted of the charge have often been lynched.
Taseer was an outspoken critic of the harsh blasphemy law, saying it was being misused.
Two months after Taseer's murder, Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was murdered by the Taliban for demanding changes to the blasphemy law.
Last year, gunmen posing as clients shot dead a prominent human rights lawyer defending a professor accused of blasphemy.
Many view Qadri as a hero and some lawyers showered him with rose petals when he arrived in court days after the killing. The judge who first convicted him was forced to flee the country after death threats.
An anti-terrorism court handed down a double death sentence for murder and terrorism in late 2011. Qadri appealed, and in March, the Islamabad High Court upheld the murder sentence, while striking down the terrorism conviction.
Wednesday's verdict by the top court restored the sentence for terrorism.
(Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)