Bollywood action hero Salman Khan was on Wednesday sentenced to five years in jail in a 2002 hit-and-run case which had gripped the nation’s attention and sparked a fierce debate on social media.
The popular actor – who has starred in some of Bollywood’s most successful films – however, escaped being sent to jail after the Bombay high court granted him interim bail till May 8, barely a few hours after the sessions court handed him the five-year term.
Sessions court judge DW Deshpande said all the charges against the star, including culpable homicide not amounting to murder, had been proved, 12 years after the actor drove into a Mumbai pavement killing a homeless man after a night out drinking.
The judge said 49-year-old Khan was driving the car at the time of the accident and the defence’s contention that his driver Ashok Singh was at the wheel was not probable.
“You were driving the car without a licence and you were under the influence of alcohol," Deshpande told a courtroom packed with Khan’s family members and journalists.
Khan, wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, broke down on hearing the verdict and witnesses said he wiped his tears with his shirt sleeve. Khan’s family members too were upset and his two sisters broke down in the courtroom.
Watch: Last glimpse of Salman Khan before his conviction
When the judge heard arguments on the quantum of sentence, Khan’s lawyer sought a lesser sentence in view of his humanitarian work. He said the actor had paid Rs 19 lakh as compensation to the victims and would do more if ordered.
“We are not running away from responsibility,” the counsel said. Khan himself pleaded with the judge for a lesser sentence.
The prosecution sought the maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.
Khan was charged with running over five persons sleeping on a pavement outside a bakery in Bandra in his Toyota Land Cruiser early on September 28, 2002, killing one and injuring four.
After the sentencing, Khan's lawyers moved a bail application in Bombay high court.
During the lengthy trial, the prosecution examined 27 witnesses, including eyewitnesses, persons who were injured in the accident, employees of the Rain Bar where Khan was drinking, the doctor who took a blood sample of the actor, doctors who treated the injured, forensic experts and police officers.
Bollywood actor Salman Khan, seated inside a police van, was charged with killing one person and injuring four when his Toyota Land Cruiser crashed into a bakery in Bandra in 2002. (Reuters file photo)
Khan had pleaded not guilty and told the court his driver was at the wheel. The surprise element in the trial came when Khan's driver Ashok Singh came to the court after 12 years and deposed last month that he was at the wheel when the accident occurred. Singh said the car's front left tyre burst, making steering and braking difficult.
However, constable Ravindra Himmatrao Patil, who was part of Khan's security detail, said in his statement to police that the drunk actor lost control of the SUV while driving at speeds of up to 70 kmph.
“The people were sleeping on the footpath. Salman and (his cousin) Kamaal ran away from the spot," said Patil, who died in 2007.
Read | Meet Francis Fernandes, the witness in hit-and-run case
Defence lawyers argued that police had not obtained fingerprints from the steering wheel to find out who was driving the vehicle. Khan's lawyers contested the prosecution’s allegations and said he had been drinking water all evening.
They also said the homeless man was killed during efforts to move the car, rather than in the crash, when the bumper fell off and landed on him.
The judgement was announced amid tight security around the court at Kalaghoda and only lawyers, media and court staff were allowed in the courtroom. A large number of media teams, lawyers and fans converged on the court complex to find out about the actor's fate.
Lawyers and fans kept pushing to enter the courtroom and the judge asked police to intervene. The judge directed police not to allow any more people inside as there was no space. The proceedings were briefly put on hold because of the disturbance before the judge had the doors of the courtroom closed.
A police officer inspects actor Salman Khan's Toyota Land Cruiser after it crashed into a bakery in Bandra on September 28, 2002. (HT file photo/ Girish Srivastava)
Hours before the verdict, #WeLoveYouSalmanKhan and #SalmanVerdict were trending on Twitter. Relatives and friends from the industry, including Shah Rukh Khan, were seen visiting Khan on Wednesday night.
The actor is known for cranking out some of Bollywood's biggest blockbusters and has an estimated Rs 300 crore riding on his films.
Khan has starred in more than 100 films and television shows since his first hit, Maine Pyar Kiya, in the 1980s. The muscular actor is no stranger to controversy off screen and in 1998, he spent more than a week in prison for allegedly killing endangered blackbucks.He is facing two other cases in Rajasthan for allegedly poaching endangered animals and possessing arms without a valid licence.
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(With inputs from agencies)