Jodhpur: A Jodhpur court sentenced Bollywood's most bankable star Salman Khan to five years in jail after finding him guilty of killing two endangered blackbucks during an impromptu hunting trip in October, 1998 in Rajasthan.
The incident took place in the intervening night of October 1 and 2 in the Kankani village near Jodhpur, where the actor was shooting the film Hum Saath Saath Hain.
His co-stars and co-accused Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Neelam and Sonali Bendre, who had accompanied the actor that night, were acquitted by the Chief Judicial Magistrate's Court (CJM), Jodhpur Rural.
Local travel agent Dushyant Singh was also acquitted.
Salman, the main accused in the case and who was driving the car that night, was also fined Rs 10,000 by CJM Dev Kumar Khatri.
Tears rolled down Salman’s cheeks after he heard the jail term. His sisters Alvira and Arpita, who were present in court, also broke down. The actor was arrested inside the court premises in Jodhpur.
Salman Khan was taken to the Jodhpur Central Jail after the verdict. His bail plea will be heard in district and session court at 10.30 in the morning on Friday. This means he may have to spend some time in jail till the session court suspends his sentence. Salman had earlier spent 18 days between 1998 and 2007.
Meanwhile, after medical examination, Salman has been lodged in barrack number 2, which is close to the dispensary and next to the cell of spiritual leader and rape accused Asaram Bapu.
Salman Khan is prisoner number 106.
Besides, Asaram, the Jodhpur central jail houses Shambu Lal Raigar accused of Rajsamand hate crime. Then there is gangster Lawrence Vishnoi who had threatened to kill Salman a couple of months ago and the prison is also having several hardened terrorists who have been moved out of Srinagar jail.
April 5 was verdict day for the poaching case and the court pronounced Salman Khan guilty soon after it opened at 11 am. The actor's sisters, Alvira and Arpita, were present in court.
There was tight security in and around the court with emergency response teams and women commandos deployed.
In July 2016, the Rajasthan High Court had acquitted Salman in two other poaching cases -- that of another endangered species chinkaras -- hunted down during the same film shoot.
Six months later, he was acquitted by the CJM Court in Arms Act case – for possessing and using firearms with expired licence -- related to the poaching of the two blackbucks.
Arguing for maximum punishment for the actor in the blackbuck case, the prosecution called Salman a habitual offender. Salman's lawyer strongly objected to it and demanded leniency, saying he had been acquitted by higher courts in similar cases and that he has been involved in social service over the years.
But this was the strongest case against Salman Khan, unlike the two chinkara cases, which had only one eye-witness. This witness not only changed his statement later but also refused to recognise the other film stars who were the co-accused.
The High Court had also noted the eye-witness did not make himself available for cross examination by Salman’s counsel in the chinkara cases. Another fact that went in Salman’s favour was that the carcass of the chinkaras, allegedly killed, was not found.
But there were more eye-witnesses in the Kankani blackbuck case -- the Bishnois.
The killing took place near a village of Bishnois, who are passionate about protecting the animals. On hearing the gunshots, the villagers came out running and some were among the 28 witnesses whose evidence against the actor was crucial in the conviction.
The Bishnois chased the actor's car, a Gypsy, on their bikes after finding the carcass of the dead animals at the spot. Four of them, Chhogaram, Poonam Chand, Sheraram and Mangilal, have remained firm on their account in the last twenty years.
“All of them were in a Gypsy car that night, with Salman Khan in the driving seat. He, on spotting a herd of black bucks, shot at and killed two of them,” Public Prosecutor Bhawani Singh Bhati had told court during final arguments.
“But on being spotted and chased, they fled leaving the dead animals there," he had argued, adding there was adequate evidence against the actors.
The villagers had handed the carcass of the two blackbucks to the to the forest department.
The postmortem cited asphyxiation as reason of death for one deer, the other was said to have been killed from injuries after falling into a ditch and from dog-bite. The prosecution challenged the postmortem report, saying it did not mention gun injuries. A medical board was constituted, which confirmed that both animals died from bullet injuries.
In the last 20 years, Salman Khan's counsel has argued that the actor was not armed or that he was carrying an air rifle which can not kill. It was also submitted in court that the animals might have died of overeating or that stray dogs killed them. Salman had also said in an interview that the deer were caught in a bush and that he had actually saved them.
The blackbuck is an endangered species, protected under the Indian Wildlife Act.
Salman faced charges under Section 51 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act and the other actors were charged under Section 51 read with Section 149 (unlawful assembly) of the Indian Penal Code. Maximum punishment under Section 51 is six years.
(With PTI inputs)...