NEW DELHI: Bollywood superstar Salman Khan urged India's top court Sunday to spare the life of a convicted bomb plotter due to be hanged this week, declaring him innocent and sparking a political furore.
The Supreme Court is expected on Monday to hear a last-ditch appeal from Yakub Memon, convicted of being a key plotter of a series of bomb blasts that killed hundreds in Mumbai two decades ago – the deadliest such attacks in India's history.
The court had last week rejected what was believed at the time to be a final appeal from Memon, paving the way for his execution on Thursday after more than two decades in jail.
But his lawyers lodged the last-minute appeal, saying his execution date of July 30 had been set unlawfully back in April, before all legal avenues to appeal were exhausted.
Khan, a hugely popular actor who was himself convicted in May of a deadly hit-and-run accident, described Memon, an accountant by profession, as innocent, sparking protests outside his house.
“One innocent man killed is killing the humanity,” Khan said on Twitter where he has 13.1 million followers.
“Get Tiger, hang him. Parade him not his brother,” Khan said referring to Memon's brother Tiger, whom police say masterminded the attacks and who is still on the run.
The actor later retracted the comments after uproar from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the opposition and a prosecutor involved in the case.
“The Supreme Court gave its verdict on hard core evidence and none of us are in position to undermine the verdict,” said a BJP spokeswoman, Shaina NC.
The attacks are a religiously contentious issue in India because they are believed to have been staged by Mumbai's Muslim-dominated underworld in retaliation for anti-Muslim violence that killed more than 1,000 people.
The Bombay Stock Exchange, the offices of Air India and a luxury hotel were among the targets of the March 1993 blasts, which killed 257 people in India's commercial capital.
Eleven people have been convicted over the attacks, but alleged masterminds Tiger and Mumbai gang boss Dawood Ibrahim have not been caught.
Dozens of angry protesters, some waving BJP flags, converged outside the star's house in Mumbai, demanding he apologise to the victims' families.
The actor said on Twitter he was retracting the comments because they have the potential to “create misunderstanding”, adding “I respect all faiths”.
The furore came as a petition signed mainly by lawyers and politicians was given to Indian President Pranab Mukherjee urging clemency, partly on the basis that Yakub Memon has been languishing in jail for more than 20 years, the Press Trust of India news agency said.
A former Supreme Court judge, Harjit Singh Bedi, also said the court should take notice of reports Memon had cooperated with investigators and returned voluntarily from Pakistan where he fled after the blasts.
In a letter in the Sunday Express newspaper, Bedi said the court should examine whether these count as mitigating circumstances and refer the case back to the trial court for consideration.