MUMBAI: An Indian court on Wednesday handed down a five-year jail sentence to Bollywood superstar Salman Khan, for killing a homeless man in a September 2002 hit-and-run after a night out drinking.
Additional Sessions Judge D.W. Deshpande convicted the 49-year-old of culpable homicide for crashing his SUV into a group of homeless men in India's entertainment capital Mumbai and then fleeing the scene, an AFP journalist inside the courtroom reported.
The judge told a sessions court Khan should receive “five years in jail” for the crash that the actor had blamed on his driver. Khan looked stunned as the sentence was read out, according to an AFP reporter.
After a bail plea hearing on Wednesday afternoon, the Bombay High Court granted Khan a two-day interim bail.
The judge told Khan in court, "you were driving the car" and found him guilty in all eight charges against him, said a report published on NDTV. Khan's friends and family members — Arpita Khan Sharma, Alvira Atul Agnihotri, Sohail Khan, Arbaaz Khan, Salim Khan and Baba Siddiqui — were present with him at Mumbai Sessions Court to extend their support.
Friends and family members had also visited Khan's residence a day before his hearing. Among them was Khan's co-star Shahrukh Khan who was seen outside the former's home on Tuesday evening.
The charges also include negligent driving and causing grievous harm to the victims. The prosecution told the court that Khan was drunk when he rammed his SUV into the group of homeless men. Khan may be taken into custody soon and shifted to Arthur Road jail.
Khan, star of Bollywood blockbusters such as “Dabangg”, was accused of driving his Toyota Land Cruiser into a group of homeless men sleeping rough in suburban Mumbai after spending the evening in an upmarket bar.
One man was killed and several others were injured in the incident.
The victim's wife, Begum Shaikh, said she had been waiting a long time for justice, adding "We have gone through a lot of hardships". "Everything is so expensive and we hardly have any income. My kids are always under stress," she told the CNN-IBN channel.
Khan has always denied being behind the wheel, but the conviction may lead him to face up to 10 years in prison, bringing the career of one of the Indian movie industry's biggest box-office draws to a shuddering halt. The trial began in earnest last year after a series of court hearings and legal hold-ups.
A string of prosecution witnesses, including survivors of the crash, have testified that Khan was driving the vehicle when it ploughed at speed into the men sleeping on the street near a bakery.
When Khan finally took the stand in March, he pleaded not guilty and told the court that his driver was responsible for mounting the pavement in the upmarket suburb of Bandra West.
The driver testified in court last month that he had been behind the wheel, and that the crash occurred after the front left tyre burst, making steering and braking difficult. But a constable attached to Khan's security detail said in his statement to police that the drunk actor lost control of the car while driving at about 90 kph (55 mph).
"The people were sleeping on the footpath. Salman and (his cousin) Kamaal ran away from the spot," said the constable, who died in 2007 of tuberculosis.
One of the sleeping labourers injured in the accident said in his statement that "Salman was so drunk he fell. He stood but he fell again and then he ran away".
|Salman Khan (C) is watched by his father Salim Khan and others as he walks towards a vehicle at his residence in Mumbai on May 6, 2015, before travelling to a court appearance in Mumbai. — AFP|
'Only drinking water'
Khan's lawyers said the action and romantic comedy star had in fact been drinking water all evening and had climbed out of the driver's seat after the accident because the passenger side door had been damaged.
They also said that the victim, Nurulah Mahbob Sharif, was killed during an operation to move the car, rather than the crash itself, when the bumper fell off and landed on him.
Television news channels were carrying virtually non-stop coverage on Wednesday, with camera crews parked outside Khan's home.
The Times of India, which carried the front-page headline “Judgement Day for Salman”, said the verdict would “bring the curtains down on a case that has riveted the media's attention for 13 years”.
Khan, the son of a respected film writer, has starred in more than 100 films and television shows since his first hit “Maine Pyar Kiya” (I Fell in Love) in the 1980s.
But the body-building actor is no stranger to controversy off screen and he spent more than a week behind bars for killing an endangered Indian gazelle in 1998 during a hunting trip.
Khan, who has never married, was also in the news for allegedly assaulting former Miss World and Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai with whom he had a long relationship.
The full verdict is being keenly awaited both by his fans and Bollywood studios who stand to lose millions of dollars if they have to cancel filming for movies he has been signed up to. One report by the Press of Trust of India said more than $31 million was riding on the verdict.
If jailed, Khan would become the second big-name Bollywood actor to be imprisoned in the last two years. Sanjay Dutt, the star of a series of gangster movies, is currently behind bars over possession of weapons linked to several bombings in Mumbai in 1993.
After reports of Salman Khan's conviction, stocks for Mandhana Industries fell 3.6 per cent, while Eros International dropped 4 per cent.
Mandhana has an exclusive agreement with Being Human — the Salman Khan Foundation for designing, marketing and distributing Being Human clothing products, its website shows. Eros International had said in December that it had acquired global distribution rights of Salman Khan's two upcoming movies.