Salman Khan, a troubled Bollywood megastar, sentenced to prison in poaching case
Bollywood megastar Salman Khan was convicted Thursday of poaching two rare deer 20 years ago and sentenced to five years in prison, with a judge labeling the troubled actor a “habitual offender.”
Khan, one of India’s most reliable box-office draws with a rabid fan base, was expected to appeal the decision. A bail hearing was scheduled for Friday, meaning he would spend the night in jail in the western city of Jodhpur.
The case stemmed from a 1998 incident in which Khan, while on a movie shoot, took his co-stars hunting and shot and killed two black bucks and a gazelle in a wildlife preserve in the western state of Rajasthan.
Authorities filed multiple poaching and weapons charges against the actor. He was convicted in two of the cases, serving short stints in jail, but the convictions were overturned on appeal. He was acquitted last year on charges of carrying illegal weapons.
Khan has offered various defenses in the poaching cases, saying he was armed with a nonlethal air gun, that the antelopes had died of overeating and even that he had “saved the deer” by feeding water to a fawn.
The court in Jodhpur acquitted the four other actors — Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Neelam Kothari and Sonali Bendre — of involvement in the killings.
The court heard 28 witnesses including members of the Bishnoi community, a religious sect that practices animal protection, who said they chased Khan’s jeep as it drove off after the shooting.
Bishnois gathered outside the courthouse cheered the verdict. The response from Khan’s fans on social media was quite the opposite.
“So others get acquitted? Everyone but one?” wrote one fan on Twitter, who accused the media of bias against Khan.
Fellow actors also lamented the verdict. Dalip Tahil told India’s NDTV that Khan was being targeted because he was a superstar.
“There is something wrong,” he said. “Everybody else is let off, and just one person gets the harshest punishment. Where is justice? The whole point of crime and punishment is to reform somebody.”
Actor Arjun Rampal tweeted: “I feel this is too harsh. I do hope he gets the relief he deserves.”
Khan — whose last film, “Tiger Zinda Hai” (“Tiger Is Alive”), earned $50 million domestically to rank third among Indian box-office hits — has remained one of the movie-mad country’s most bankable stars despite his legal troubles.
In 2015 he was acquitted of a fatal drunk driving accident in which he was accused of running over and killing a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk in Mumbai, India’s film capital.
An actress and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai alleged in 2002 that Khan hit her while they were dating.
The heavily muscled Khan, who typically plays brooding action heroes, successfully rehabilitated his public image by launching a charity, Being Human, whose clothing line is popular with youth across India.
Film industry analysts said Khan’s next film, “Race 3,” is due to be released in June but it wasn’t immediately clear what effect his conviction would have on the film’s box office performance. He had two other movies, “Dabangg 3” and “Bharat,” that were in pre-production whose futures are now uncertain.
“The overall impact would be massive,” said film industry analyst Akshaye Rathi. “He is a one-man army who brings [nearly $100 million] on average per year into the industry as revenues. If he doesn’t get bail, it is a substantially massive loss to the industry.”
Khan, who lives in Mumbai in an apartment near the Arabian Sea, is used to seeing fans and paparazzi gathering outside his house. He was due to spend Thursday night in the central jail in Jodhpur, where another high-profile prisoner is Asaram Bapu, a self-described guru who was convicted on rape charges.
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from Mumbai, India.
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