Bollywood actor gets 5 years for killing protected antelopes

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Bollywood actor Salman Khan (second left) arrives at a court in Jodhpur in the western state of Rajasthan. Photo: Reuters

A court in the Indian state of Rajasthan has sentenced Bollywood superstar Salman Khan to five years in jail, with a fine of 10,000 rupees  (US$154), for killing endangered antelopes two decades ago.

Four other actors who accompanied Salman during the hunt were acquitted of all charges.

Salman Khan was accused of killing two blackbucks, a species of antelope, near the city of Jodhpur in October 1998. He and the other actors were charged under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, and they could have received a maximum punishment of six years.

Salman will be taken to Jodhpur Central Jail, with a bail hearing set for Friday. According to film trade estimates, the actor has around 5 billion rupees riding on him this year.

Meanwhile, animal rights’ group Akhil Bharitya Jeev Raksha Bishnoi Sabha has announced that it will petition the High Court against the acquittals of the four other actors in the case.

The final arguments in the case were heard on March 28. Demanding maximum punishment, the prosecution had called Salman a “habitual offender.” His defense had pleaded for probation or minimum punishment, arguing that he had been acquitted by higher courts and was involved in social service.

Salman committed the crime while shooting the movie Hum Saath-Saath Hain, which earned 81.9 million rupees in its first week in cinemas. According to Forbes magazine, Salman is the second-highest-paid actor in Bollywood and the ninth-highest in the world.

He was first convicted in the case by a lower court in 2006, with a fine and a five-year jail sentence. The actor spent a week in a prison in Jodhpur before he was granted bail. Four months later, the court suspended the sentence and ordered the actor not to leave the country without formal permission.

Then, in 2016, the Rajasthan High Court acquitted Salman Khan of all charges, saying there was no evidence to show that the animals that were found dead had been shot by the actor’s licensed gun.

At the time, public prosecutor Bhawani Singh Bhati told the court that all five actors were in a Maruti Gypsy four-wheel-drive vehicle that night, with Salman Khan in the driver’s seat.

“He, on spotting a herd of blackbucks, shot at and killed two of them. But on being spotted [by locals] and chased, they fled, leaving the dead animals there,” he said.

Salman Khan’s counsel argued that there were many holes in the prosecution’s story and it failed to prove its case beyond any doubt.

“It even failed to prove that the blackbucks were killed by gunshots. Hence [the] investigation cannot be trusted,” said the actor’s lawyer, H M Saraswat.

The blackbuck, also known as the Indian antelope, is a species native to the South Asian subcontinent. The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed it as a “near threatened” species in 2013 and it is protected under the India’s Wildlife Act.

Salman Khan is often called the “bad boy” of Indian cinema for a history of being surrounded by controversies.

In 2002, his Toyota Land Cruiser rammed into a roadside bakery near his home in Mumbai’s Bandra West. Five people sleeping on the footpath were injured, one of whom succumbed to his injuries. Salman was arrested and released on bail. In 2013, a sessions court convicted Salman of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, but he was granted interim bail by the Bombay High Court.

In 2015, responding to a Right-to-Information query, the Maharashtra government revealed that files pertaining to the hit-and-run case had been destroyed in a fire at the state Parliament. That same year, he was acquitted of all charges by the Bombay High Court.

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