Bollywood Superstar Salman Khan has been sentenced five years in prison for killing two blackbucks by a Jodhpur court, capping a 20-year case that began with a late night safari outside Jodhpur on the sidelines of a film shoot.
The court in this tourist city acquitted his Bollywood colleagues Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Neelam and Sonali Bendre and a local, Dushyant Singh, giving them the "benefit of doubt" for the incident in October 1998. Besides attracting attention due to Salman's popularity, the case also caught the nation's imagination because it was the first time that five actors were involved in one single case.
"The accused is a popular actor whose deeds are followed by people. Despite this, the accused hunted two blackbucks," said Chief Judicial Magistrate Dev Kumar Khatri in his written judgment.
The verdict triggered a deluge of sympathy from colleagues for the "bad boy" of Hindi filmdom, whose career and personal life have been peppered with controversies, including a manslaughter charge in a hit-and-run case that is still pending.
"I feel bad. He should be given relief. He has done a lot of humanitarian work," actor-politician Jaya Bachchan told reporters outside Parliament in New Delhi, adding that the punishment was harsh.
Since morning, media crews, hundreds of stargazers and security personnel swarmed the court premises waiting for Salman and the other accused to show up. Large crowds armed with phone cameras lined up along the 2-kilometre route from the court as the 52-year-old was whisked away in a Bolero police jeep to spend a night in the Jodhpur Central Jail.
Within hours, social media was awash with photographs of Salman, dressed in a black shirt and jeans, entering the jail.
As the sentence is more than three years, Salman will have to appeal in a higher court for bail. His lawyer, Anand Desai, said the sessions court will hear the appeal for suspension of the sentence/bail at 10.30 a.m. tomorrow. Salman has consistently denied shooting the two deer, as claimed by the prosecution.
Jail sources said Salman was lodged in barrack number 2 in a heavily protected and secure cell. He would have to spend at least one night in the jail until his bail hearing tomorrow.
This is Salman's fourth stint in the Jodhpur Central Jail, which also houses religious preacher Asaram Bapu, who has been accused of rape. He had earlier spent a total of 18 days in the jail in 1998, 2006 and 2007, all for cases of poaching.
According to prosecution lawyer Mahipal Bishnoi, the actors were in a Gypsy that night with Salman in the driving seat. He spotted a herd of blackbucks and killed two of them, Bishnoi says.
However, Salman's lawyer said that the fact that the court has acquitted all the 5 co-accused, "would imply that Salman was out hunting alone in the middle of the night in a remote area outside Jodhpur."
All the accused, some of them accompanied by their family members, were in the courtroom when the verdict was read out.
Neelam's husband, actor-director Samir Soni, said he was happy for his wife, he believed Salman had been targeted for his star status.
"I have mixed emotions right now... It is a 20- year-old ordeal. I don't know why Salman was singled out. It seems his (star) status has come in the way," Soni told PTI.
Members of the Bishnoi community, mainly found in Western Rajasthan and known for their reverence for nature and wildlife, however, said justice had been done.