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Fans cheer as Bollywood idol Salman Khan is cleared in India hit-and-run case

Bollywood superstar Salman Khan was cleared Thursday of running over and killing a homeless man with his car in a case that has captivated India for 13 years.

An appeals judge in Mumbai, India’s film capital, tossed out Khan’s conviction for culpable homicide, saying there was insufficient evidence that he was behind the wheel of the Toyota Land Cruiser that slammed into a pavement where a group of men were sleeping one night in 2002. One man was killed and four were injured.

Khan was found guilty in May and sentenced to five years in prison. The action hero, who made $40 million last year, was freed on $500 bail and filed an appeal while continuing to make films.

The appeals judge said prosecutors had failed to prove that Khan was driving the car or that he was intoxicated, citing “glaring anomalies” in evidence collected by Mumbai police investigators, including blood samples and receipts from a hotel bar where the actor spent the evening with friends before the collision.

The judge also said testimony from Khan’s former police bodyguard, who said the actor was behind the wheel and had been drinking at the bar before the crash, was “wholly unreliable” because he had altered his account of the incident.

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The case against Khan has been a legal drama worthy of the big screen, with almost as many unexplained twists as a Bollywood screenplay.

The bodyguard died of tuberculosis before the start of the trial, which activists alleged was delayed for more than a decade because police were shielding Khan from prosecution. Another star witness -- a singer friend of Khan’s who reportedly corroborated that the actor was driving the car -- turned hostile, moved to Europe and was not called to testify.

In March, Khan’s family driver, Ashok Singh, came forward for the first time to say he was driving the car and that a burst tire caused the accident. After Khan was convicted in May, Singh was arrested for perjury.

Khan’s popularity has hardly dimmed despite his legal troubles. He topped Forbes India’s list of the country’s richest celebrities last year. After Thursday’s verdict, hundreds of fans -- some clutching film posters of Khan in a familiar pose, shirtless and glaring -- gathered outside the courthouse and at the actor’s suburban Mumbai residence in a show of support.

“Our industry is happy for him now because he is our person,” filmmaker Subhash Ghai told the Times Now broadcast network. “Looking at his record, his good deeds, his charity acts ... as a human being we feel that God has been kind to him.”

Legal experts said the court had been swayed by Khan’s star status, which helped afford him a speedy appeal while tens of thousands of prisoners languish in Indian jails awaiting long-delayed trials.

“The verdict is a mockery of the justice system,” said Abha Singh, a lawyer and activist who has worked on the case.

The case now rests with the state government of Maharashtra, which can choose to challenge the verdict in India’s supreme court. A spokesman for the state government said it would decide whether to file an appeal after it reviews the verdict.

Special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report.

For more news from India, follow @SBengali on Twitter


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