An Indian court on Wednesday found Bollywood superstar Salman Khan guilty of culpable homicide in a hit-and-run accident 13 years ago that left a homeless man dead, and sentenced the actor to five years in prison.
Four others were injured in the 2002 incident in Mumbai, India’s film capital, in which Khan’s Toyota Land Cruiser slammed into a sidewalk in the early morning hours. Prosecutors accused Khan, now 49, of driving while intoxicated.
The verdict capped a long-running trial that tested the bounds of celebrity power in movie-mad India. Despite the charges against him, Khan had become the country’s top-grossing actor thanks to a string of action hits, earning nearly $40 million in 2014 and topping Forbes India’s list of the richest stars.
Khan, who broke into tears as the sentence was read, immediately appealed the verdict and asked for bail. He was released from custody pending a decision on his bail request, which was expected Friday.
His lawyers have offered a range of defenses, claiming that Khan’s driver was behind the wheel and that the accident was due to a burst tire. Khan retains heavy support in the film community and is shooting or planning to shoot movies worth more than $31 million.
By contrast, one of the victims of the crash, Abdullah Rauf Shaikh, who lost a leg, said he had been all but ignored since the accident.
“Nobody came to visit me in the last 13 years,” Shaikh, who was 22 at the time of the crash, told the Indian Express newspaper after the verdict. “I am forced to do petty jobs to support my family.”
Lawyers welcomed the verdict, saying it reinstated faith in a judicial system that is often seen as slow and prone to outside influence.
“This judgment has saved the Indian judiciary from serious injury,” said veteran lawyer Asim Sarode. “The judgment establishes the fact that all citizens are equal in front of the law.”
Other observers said the sentence was too lenient; culpable homicide carries a maximum jail term of 10 years.
In a sign of Khan’s stardom and the popularity of the Indian film industry known as Bollywood -- the world’s largest -- fans from all over the country deluged Mumbai ahead of the verdict to express solidarity with the actor. But Judge D.W. Deshpande’s words at the start of proceedings were blunt.
“You were driving the car; you were under the influence of alcohol,” Deshpande told Khan.
The case has dragged on since September 2002, when Khan’s SUV struck the American Express bakery in the Bandra area of Mumbai, a neighborhood popular with film stars. The vehicle ran over five people sleeping on the street, killing 38-year-old Noor Ullah Khan and seriously injuring three others.
A police officer who was part of Khan’s security detail told police that the actor was drunk and had lost control of the car. But the officer died in 2007 of tuberculosis, raising questions about whether the case would continue.
A retrial was ordered in 2013.
Last month, as the trial wound toward conclusion, Khan’s driver told the court that he was piloting the Land Cruiser, a claim that the judge discarded. The driver was facing perjury charges.
Khan’s lawyers had asked for leniency, saying Khan suffered from a stress condition and that jail time would affect the the community service the actor performs through his charity organization, Being Human.
It was the most prominent legal controversy involving a Bollywood star since actor Sanjay Dutt was arrested in 1993 on charges of illegal weapons possession and links to suspected terrorists. Dutt was later convicted and sentenced to prison time.
FOR THE RECORD
May 6, 6:45 a.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sanjay Dutt was convicted in 1993. He was arrested in 1993 and later convicted.
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent. Staff writer Bengali reported from Katmandu, Nepal.