A judge on Wednesday convicted Bollywood superstar Salman Khan of killing a homeless man in a 2002 hit-and-run after a night out drinking, rejecting his claim that his driver was to blame.
D.W. Deshpande found Khan guilty of culpable homicide and other charges for driving his Land Cruiser into a group of homeless men sleeping rough in suburban Mumbai, after the actor had spent the evening in an upmarket bar.
Khan had always denied being behind the wheel, but now faces up to 10 years in prison — potentially bringing the career of one of the Indian movie industry’s biggest box-office stars to a shuddering halt.
Khan looked dejected after hearing the verdict, his eyes downcast, according to an AFP reporter inside the courtroom, where lawyers were giving their submissions on sentencing.
Khan’s lawyer Shrikant Shivade argued against prison for his client. He said Khan had given generously to charity and was also suffering from a neurological condition.
But prosecutor Pradeep Gharat said that “fines are not enough”, adding that “the punishment has to be a deterrent” to others.
The sentence was expected to be passed later Wednesday.
The 49-year-old star of blockbusters such as “Dabangg” (Fearless) fled the scene of the crash that left one man dead and several others injured.
The verdict had been keenly awaited both by his legions of fans and Bollywood studios, who stand to lose millions of dollars if they have to cancel filming for movies for which he has been signed up.
The trial began in earnest last year after a series of court hearings and lengthy legal hold-ups.
Several 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 told the court 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 Khan guilty of all charges including driving while under the influence of alcohol and without a licence.
Khan is likely to appeal the verdict.
Television news channels carried virtually non-stop coverage on Wednesday, with camera crews parked outside Khan’s home and surrounding the court.
– Actor ‘ran away’ –
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).
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.
Khan, the son of a respected film writer, 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. He spent more than a week behind bars for killing an endangered Indian gazelle in 1998 during a hunting trip.
If he were to be jailed, Khan would become the second big-name Bollywood actor to be imprisoned 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.