By Aditya Phatak, AFP
MUMBAI — An Indian court Thursday cleared Bollywood superstar Salman Khan of killing a homeless man in a hit-and-run crash 13 years ago, acquitting him of all charges after he appealed his conviction. The Bombay High Court said a lower court had erred in finding the 49-year-old guilty of culpable homicide and other charges after a closely watched trial in May when he was sentenced to five years in prison. “The appeal is allowed and the decision of the trial court is quashed and set aside. Salman Khan is acquitted of all charges,” judge Anil Ramchandra Joshi told the court. Khan, one of the Indian movie industry’s biggest box-office draws, broke down in tears and supporters in the gallery let out hushed cheers as the verdict was delivered. Joshi said the prosecution had “failed to establish beyond reasonable doubt” that Khan was driving his SUV and under the influence of alcohol when it rammed into a group of homeless men in suburban Mumbai in 2002. Laborer Nurulah Mahbob Sharif was killed and several others were injured when the vehicle ploughed into them at speed as they slept on a street in the suburb of Bandra West. A sessions court found Khan guilty of all charges in May, including driving under the influence and without a license. But Joshi, who presided over the appeal, said the court had erred in accepting the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness. He described Khan’s former bodyguard, Ravindra Patil, who had insisted the actor was behind the wheel and speeding, as “not wholly reliable,” citing “various anomalies in his testimony.” “Unfortunately there are no witnesses to back his version,” the judge said about Patil, who died from tuberculosis in 2007. Khan has starred in more than 100 films and television shows since his first hit “Maine Pyar Kiya” (I Fell in Love) in the 1980s. ‘Long 13 years’
Amit Desai, Khan’s lawyer, told reporters that it “had been a long 13 years.” “As far as my client is concerned it’s a great relief. We are very glad of the outcome,” he said.
Khan’s trial began in earnest last year after a series of court hearings and lengthy legal hold-ups. His defense team maintained throughout that the actor’s driver was to blame for the accident. They claimed Khan had been drinking water and had climbed out of the car through the driver’s side after the accident as the passenger door had been damaged. But the sessions court rejected that defense, finding him guilty on May 6. Khan immediately appealed and the sentence was suspended two days later, pending the outcome. State prosecutors in Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, are expected to appeal Thursday’s ruling to the Supreme Court. Khan has been out on bail throughout the trial and appeal. The case has seemingly not interfered with his career as one of Bollywood’s most bankable stars, idolized by millions. Dozens of joyous fans gathered outside his home in Mumbai’s north as news of his acquittal spread, while colleagues in the Hindi film industry tweeted their delight. “I want to thank God for this,” one fan said. Other Twitter users were less kind, suggesting there was one rule for the rich and another for the poor in India, lamenting that little attention was being given to the victim. Khan is no stranger to controversy and spent more than a week behind bars for killing an endangered Indian gazelle in 1998. The actor, who has never married, was also in the news for allegedly assaulting former Miss World and Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai with whom he had a long relationship.