Salman Khan, the Bollywood superstar sentenced to five years in jail for killing a homeless man with his car after a night out drinking 13 years ago, has escaped prison for the moment after the judgment was suspended pending an appeal.
On Wednesday, the 49-year-old actor was found guilty at a sessions court of culpable homicide and other charges for driving his vehicle into a group of homeless men sleeping rough in suburban Mumbai in 2002.
The latest ruling will disappoint those who saw the earlier sentence as a demonstration that the wealthy and powerful were losing the ability to avoid justice, or at least jail, as India develops.
It will hearten Khan’s supporters, some of whom have made it clear they blamed the victims for the accident, commenting that pavements were not for sleeping on.
Lawyers for Khan told the high court in Mumbai, India’s commercial centre and home of the massive film industry, that their client’s conviction should be overturned. The court agreed to suspend the sentence until an appeal is heard, according to Indian television networks NDTV and CNN-IBN.
The decision means the actor’s jail sentence will not take effect, reports said.
The actor, one of the most commercially successful in Bollywood, received massive support from the film industry. A number of A-list Indian have celebrities visited his Mumbai home since the verdict. Fans cheered outside Khan’s residence as the Friday’s decision became known.
Khan had been found guilty on all charges, including driving while under the influence of alcohol and without a licence. Judge DW Deshpande rejected Khan’s claim that his driver was to blame and sentenced the 49-year-old to five years in prison, later granting the star bail ahead of Friday’s hearing.
During the trial, the defence claimed that Khan had been drinking water and had climbed out of the car through the driver’s seat after the accident because the passenger side door had been damaged. But several 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.
Khan is the second big-name Bollywood actor to be sentenced in the past two years. Sanjay Dutt, the star of a series of gangster movies, is behind bars over possession of weapons linked to a series of bombings in Mumbai in 1993.
The prosecution referred to previous high-profile cases involving wealthy men who had killed street sleepers with their cars in accidents. Anthony Pareira killed seven people after he lost control of his vehicle on Mumbai’s seafront Carter Road while drunk in 2006 and was sentenced to three years in jail six years later.
Friday’s decision will reinforce calls for wholesale reform of India’s judicial system, which is clogged by a massive backlog of cases. Commentators have pointed out that it has already taken 14 years for a sentence to be pronounced in the case.
Khan was been ordered to post a bail of 30,000 rupees (£330).