Jodhpur: A Jodhpur court jailed superstar Salman Khan for five years on Thursday for killing two blackbucks, capping a 20-year case that began with a late night safari outside the city on the sidelines of a film shoot.
Salman’s co-stars - Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Neelam and Sonali Bendre - and a local, Dushyant Singh, were acquitted as the court gave them the "benefit of doubt" for the incident in October 1998.
Explaining the decision, Chief Judicial Magistrate Dev Kumar Khatri said in his written judgment that the “the accused is a popular actor whose deeds are followed by people. Despite this, the accused hunted two blackbucks."
The defence had argued that Salman has not been convicted in any case earlier and that he has always appeared before the court on given date. The defence counsel also said Salman was under the custody of forest department for five days and he should be given the benefit of the Probation of Offenders Act.
But the court refused to give Salman the benefit citing the circumstances of the case and gravity of the offence, according to a copy of the judgement. "...considering the rising number of cases of illegal hunting of wildlife animals, looking at the circumstances of the case and gravity of the offence, giving the benefit of Probation of Offender Act does not appear justified," the judge said.
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.
A satirical take on Salman Khan's conviction in 1998 blackbuck poaching case. (Mir Suhail/News18 Creatives)
Animal rights activists welcomed the sentencing, and some said Salman should have been given the maximum punishment under the Wildlife Act.
"We are happy that justice has prevailed and a serial offender is behind bars. The judiciary has once again proved that the popularity of the accused has no bearing on the case before the court,"said Gauri Maulekhi of People For Animals.
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 am on Friday. 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 on Friday.
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.
Final arguments in the blackbuck case were completed in the trial court on March 28. In his verdict, Khatri also imposed a Rs. 10,000 fine after finding him guilty under Section 9/51 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, which prescribes a maximum punishment of six years behind bars.
The actor is alleged to have shot and killed the blackbucks in Kankani village near Jodhpur on the night of October 1, 1998 during the shooting of the film "Hum Saath Saath Hain". Blackbuck, from the antelope family, is an endangered animal and included in the schedule-I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act-1972.
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.
Salman's friends in the industry expressed concern over the verdict with some saying the actor was punished harshly for his star-status. "I am extremely shocked," director Subhash Ghai, who has worked with Khan in several films, tweeted.
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.
Salman also had a jail stint in Mumbai when he was also involved in a hit and run. His white Toyota Land Cruiser allegedly crashed into American Express Bakery at Hill Road at Bandra in Mumbai, killing one person and injuring four on September 28, 2002.
He was acquitted in the case but the Maharashtra government has filed an appeal.