Conservative clerics and elders demanded Thursday that the Afghan government not interfere with a controversial death sentence handed down to a young journalist convicted of insulting Islam for distributing a report questioning polygamy.

Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh, 23, was sentenced to death on Jan. 22 by a three-judge panel in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for handing out a report he printed off the Internet to fellow journalism students at Balkh University.

The article questioned why men can have four wives but women cannot have multiple husbands.

Kaambakhsh has appealed his conviction.

More than 100 tribal and religious leaders convened Wednesday in Gardez, the capital of the conservative eastern province of Paktia, and demanded that the government support the sentence.

"Kaambakhsh made the Afghan people very upset. It was against the clerics and Islam. He has humiliated Islam," Khaliq Daad, head of the Islamic council of Paktia, said Thursday. "We want the Afghan president to support the court's decision."

Kaambakhsh's case sparked a protest in Kabul last week and an international outcry, with a number of organizations demanding the case be annulled and Kaambakhsh set free.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to raise the case with President Hamid Karzai in talks here Thursday. Rice flew to the Afghan capital along with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband to deliver a joint message of support and to prod Afghan officials as the United Sates continues a drive to recruit more NATO troops for Afghanistan.

A government spokesman said this week that Karzai was concerned about the death sentence, but would not intervene until the courts have their final say.

Daad criticized the government and various organizations that have come out in Kaambakhsh's defense, accusing them of interfering with the judicial process.

He said the clerics and elders worried that Kaambakhsh would be let off the hook like Abdul Rahman, a Christian convert imprisoned in 2006 on charges of apostasy who was whisked off to Italy, where he had been granted asylum.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reiterated its call for Karzai "to have the case transferred immediately to Kabul and expedited through the appeals process so that he can be officially exculpated."

Reporters Without Borders, another press rights group, also pressed the Afghan government to transfer the case and the conviction "quashed."