Actor expected to appeal the ruling, as court hears from lawyers on his length of sentencing.
An Indian 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 after driving his Toyota Land Cruiser into a group of homeless men sleeping rough in suburban Mumbai after spending the evening in an upmarket bar. One man was killed and several others were injured in the incident.
Khan, the star of blockbusters such as Dabangg, looked dejected after hearing the verdict, his eyes downcast, according to an AFP reporter inside the courtroom. He 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.
The trial began in earnest last year after a series of court hearings and legal hold-ups. A string of 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 49-year-old Khan finally took the stand in March, he pleaded not guilty and told the court that 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 him guilty of all charges including driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Khan is likely to appeal the verdict, while the court was now hearing submissions from his lawyers on the length of sentence to be decided by the judge.
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. “The people were sleeping on the footpath. Salman and [his cousin] Kamaal ran away from the spot,” said the constable, who died in 2007 of tuberculosis.
One of the sleeping laborers 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 action and romantic comedy 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.
Television news channels carried virtually non-stop coverage on Wednesday, with camera crews parked outside Khan’s home and surrounding the court.
The Times of India, which carried the front-page headline “Judgment Day for Salman,” said the verdict would “bring the curtains down on a case that has riveted the media’s attention for 13 years.”
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 in the 1980s. But the bodybuilding actor is no stranger to controversy off screen and he spent more than a week behind bars for killing an endangered Indian gazelle in 1998 during a hunting trip.
The verdict has been keenly awaited both by his fans and Bollywood studios who stand to lose millions of dollars if they have to cancel filming for movies he has been signed up to. One report by the Press of Trust of India said more than $31 million was riding on the verdict.
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.