Maharashtra

A celebrity and the law

Print edition : May 29, 2015

Salman Khan leaving the court in Mumbai after he was sentenced to five years in jail for killing a man in a hit-and-run accident. Photo: SHAILESH ANDRADE/REUTERS

On May 6, after 13 years of legal wrangling, the actor Salman Khan was convicted by the Sessions Court in Mumbai in the hit-and-run case against him. However, the Bombay High Court admitted the actor’s appeal against the sentence, granted him interim bail and suspended the sentence given by the sessions court, all within two days.

Additional Sessions Judge D.W. Deshpande handed down the judgment of “guilty” immediately after Khan’s case was called on May 6. He addressed Khan softly, saying: “You were driving the car without a licence and you were under the influence of alcohol.”

The 49-year-old Bollywood actor was found guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol, rash and negligent driving, and culpable homicide not amounting to murder. He had been charged under Sections 304 Part II of the Indian Penal Code (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), Section 279 (rash and negligent driving), Section 337 (causing hurt and endangering life), Section 338 (causing grievous hurt) and Section 427 (mischief and causing damage to property). The last provision was invoked because he had crashed into a bakery. Khan was also charged under sections of the Motor Vehicles Act for violating driving rules.

On May 8, the Bombay High Court suspended his sentence. Khan’s lawyers claimed in the High Court that the Sessions Court judge had ignored important aspects of the case such as the exact number of people in the car when it crashed. The prosecution has maintained there were three people in the car, whereas Khan’s lawyer, Amit Desai, pointed out that one of the prosecution’s own witnesses said there were four. The defence raised the matter of the "missing witness", one Kamal Khan, who was supposedly also in the car. Khan's legal team asserted that an unnecessarily harsh sentence had been given to Khan because of his celebrity status.

Justice Abhay Thipsay of the High Court granted relief to Khan saying: “The normal rule is that if the sentence is less than seven years’ imprisonment, then the sentence can be suspended if the accused person has been on bail during the trial.” Justice Thipsay said it was not a case where the accused had to be kept in jail pending hearing. He said there was no law that “says if there is alcohol [in the blood] it is culpable homicide”. Khan had to provide a bail bond of Rs.30,000 and surrender his passport. The case is due to be heard on June 15 in the High Court.

A point of interest in this case is the back-and-forth movement between all levels of the judiciary, right from the magistrate’s court to the Supreme Court.

The defence lawyer Shrikant Shivade based his argument on references to two other high-profile hit-and-run cases, involving Sanjeev Nanda, grandson of former Navy chief Admiral S.M. Nanda, and Alistair Pereira, son of a Mumbai builder. Nanda killed six people in Delhi when he ran over them and was awarded two years in jail plus a fine and two additional years of community service. Pereira killed seven people when he ran over them in Mumbai. He got six months in jail, which was later increased to three years, but he was given bail after some time. The defence argued that Khan had killed only one person and so should get a milder sentence. It also suggested that the actor’s charity efforts should be considered before a sentence was passed.

Recapitulation

On the night of September 28, 2002, Khan lost control of his Toyota Land Cruiser and careened onto a pavement in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. Five people who were sleeping on the pavement were run over. One of them, 38-year-old Noorulla Sharif, died. Thus a convoluted case that lasted almost 13 years began.

At first Khan denied any involvement, saying he neither was drunk nor was at the wheel. In the car with Khan was a Mumbai Police constable named Ravindra Patil, who was part of the actor’s security detail and was a prime witness for the prosecution. In a statement to the police, Patil described the actor as drunk. He also said that the car was speeding at about 90 kilometres per hour when the actor lost control. Patil died of tuberculosis in 2007.

Another witness, a parking attendant at the bar that Khan had departed from, said that it was Khan who took the wheel. In March this year, a new and crucial element was suddenly added to the case when Khan’s family driver, Ashok Singh, came forward to say that it was he who had been driving the car. It is not clear why it took him 12 and a half years to say this. But the late police constable’s evidence seems to have weighed more than the driver’s in the Sessions Court’s decision.

The suspension of sentence came as a huge relief to Khan’s well-wishers. If Khan had served his full prison time he would be 54 years old at the time of his release, which would probably have ended his professional life. It would have been a time of great stress for his producers, too. In his 25-year-long career, Khan has made it to the top and is one of the highest paid and most popular male actors in Bollywood. He has two films in the pipeline that are in the last stages of shooting and the actor has reportedly agreed to do four more. An estimated Rs.150 crore is riding on Khan’s appeal in the industry, not including his brand endorsements which are believed to be in the region of Rs.200 crore.

Known as the bad boy of Hindi cinema, Khan blurred the lines between his reel and real life during a shooting of his film “Hum Saath Saath Hain” in Rajasthan in October 1998 when he poached three chinkaras and a blackbuck near Jodhpur. He was slapped with cases of poaching and illegal use of arms.

The cases for killing the blackbuck (an animal that is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN’s Red List), and the arms cases are still going on. In the chinkara case, he was sentenced to one year in prison and is actually on bail. The case will be heard in the Rajasthan High Court.

Lyla Bavadam

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