Bollywood superstar Salman Khan has been sentenced to five years in prison after he was convicted on Wednesday of killing a homeless man in a 2002 hit-and-run after a night out drinking.
Judge D. W. Deshpande rejected the actor’s claims that his driver was to blame and found Khan guilty of culpable homicide.
The court heard how the 49-year-old actor was driving his Toyota Land Cruiser when he mounted the curb and ploughed into a group of homeless men sleeping rough in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra.
Khan and his friends had been spending the evening in an upmarket bar in the area. One man was killed and several others were injured in the incident.
The ‘Dabbang’ star’s family huddled together inside the court as the sentence was read out while Khan himself showed no emotions and remained staring at the floor.
According to reports, Khan will be sent directly to Arthur Road jail in Mumbai as his lawyers prepare a bail application to the High Court in Mumbai. As the jail sentence is for more than three years, the application cannot be submitted immediately under Indian law.
However, the High Court goes into recess from 10 May until 7 June. If Khan’s lawyers are unable to secure bail before then, the actor will effectively remain in prison.
Khan had always denied being behind the wheel when the incident occurred.
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, testified that Khan was driving the vehicle when it ploughed at speed into the men sleeping on the street near a bakery in September 2002.
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 the judge on Wednesday found him guilty of all charges including driving while under the influence of alcohol.
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”.
Khan’s lawyers said the 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 carried virtually non-stop coverage on Wednesday, with camera crews parked outside Khan’s home and surrounding the court.
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 respected film writer Salim Khan, 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.
The verdict has been keenly awaited both by his fans as well as Bollywood studios who have staked millions of dollars on Khan’s up-coming releases. Shares in Eros International fell by nearly five percent in the wake of the sentencing. Eros said last year that it had acquired international distribution rights for two of Khan’s up-coming movies.
It wasn’t just the film industry that took a hit.
Shares in a company that designs and markets merchandise for Khan’s Being Human foundation fell by 3.5%.
News of Khan’s jail sentence also sent Twitter into a frenzy on Wednesday. Many Bollywood personalities came out in support of the actor, whilst others questioned why the case had taken so long to reach a conclusion. Some others questioned why there wasn’t an outpouring of support for the homeless man killed in the incident.
Khan is the second big-name Bollywood actor to be jailed in the last two years. Sanjay Dutt, the star of a series of gangster movies, is behind bars over possession of weapons linked to several bombings in Mumbai in 1993.