Bollywood star Salman Khan gets 5 years' jail
Salman Khan, Bollywood’s most bankable star, was put behind bars on Thursday after being sentenced to five years in prison for killing two endangered deer nearly 20 years ago.
Khan, 52, was also fined 10,000 rupees (Dh566) by a district court in Jodhpur, a town in Rajasthan state.
In 1998, the actor was on location in a village near Jodhpur when, accompanied by four other film stars, he shot and killed two wild blackbucks. The court found Khan guilty of poaching, but acquitted the four other actors who were accused of abetting him.
Khan’s lawyers had insisted that the deer showed no signs of being shot and had died of a natural cause, such as overeating.
Khan offered no comment to reporters after the verdict. His lawyer, Anand Desai, said the court's decision “came as a surprise” and he had already filed a petition to suspend the sentence while the actor appealed the verdict.
Khan's bail plea was scheduled to be heard on Friday morning, so he was imprisoned for the night as Prisoner No 106 in Ward 2 of Jodhpur's main jail.
If upheld, Khan's sentence would affect a number of big-budget releases lined up over the next two years. The first is Race 3, the third instalment of a successful franchise scheduled to open on June 15. In addition, Khan hosts Bigg Boss, a hit reality TV show modelled on Big Brother, for which he is paid roughly 110 million rupees per episode.
In an industry stocked with megastars, Khan is currently the most reliable at the box office. He acts in two films a year on average, and three of his last five movies earned more than 5.5 billion rupees each.
But the star's image on screen — hyper-macho and violent — has also corresponded to a chequered life off screen, and he has been in trouble with the law on several occasions.
Khan was also accused of shooting three chinkaras, an Indian species of gazelle, in two hunting sorties during the film shoot in Rajasthan in 1998. Although a lower court convicted him in 2006 of poaching these animals, and handed him two separate sentences of one and five years, he served only a couple of short stints in prison before bailing himself out and filing appeals.
The Rajasthan High Court acquitted Khan in the chinkara hunting cases last year.
Police claimed that Khan had used imported, unlicensed weapons — a rifle and a revolver — to shoot both the chinkaras and the blackbucks. Last year, however, a magistrate ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove these charges.
Most infamously, Khan was accused of driving drunk in Mumbai one night in 2002 and crashing into a bakery, killing a homeless man sleeping on the pavement outside.
Khan as well as his chauffeur, Ashok Singh, claimed that the latter had been driving. Witnesses testified that Khan had been at the wheel, and he was found guilty in 2015. But the star was granted bail and his five-year prison sentence was suspended until his appeal hearing, in which he was acquitted.
Mystifyingly, Mr Singh was cleared of charges as well, leaving open the question of who ran over and killed the homeless man with Khan's white Land Cruiser. The Maharashtra state government has appealed the acquittal in the supreme court, but the case has yet to be heard.
In the case of the poached blackbucks, too, it seems unlikely that Khan will serve any significant length of time in prison, said Rampal Bhawad, the president of an environmental protection group made up of members of Rajasthan’s Bishnoi tribe.
The Bishnois, an environmentally conscious community, consider the blackbuck sacred, and it was the community’s outrage that pressured the Rajasthan police to press charges against Khan, Mr Bhawad said.
“We want an immediate appeal to be filed against those [four actors] who have been acquitted,” he said.
Ajay Kumar Chauhan, a Jodhpur-based lawyer who has represented the Bishnois in other environmental litigation, worried that, “as before, the court might suspend the prison sentence while the appeal progresses, and the appeal could take years”.
Even at the end of that appeal process, Khan’s conviction may well be overturned, as has happened regularly in the star’s past brushes with the law, Mr Chauhan added.
“If that happens, what’s the kind of signal it will send out?” he said. “That the law is for regular people, but that celebrities can break the rules and get away with it every time. That’s what Salman Khan’s story is conveying.”