Bollywood superstar Salman Khan was sentenced to five years prison on Thursday for killing endangered wildlife nearly 20 years ago, stunning India’s film industry and his die-hard fans.
Khan, regarded as the bad boy of Indian cinema, was taken into police custody and driven to jail after the sentencing amid chaotic scenes outside the court in Rajasthan state.
His defence team said Khan, one of Bollywood’s most bankable stars, would appeal against the conviction in a higher court on Friday.
“We will argue the case. He has been convicted wrongly by the lower court. Much of the evidence on record was not properly dealt with,” Mahesh Bora, one of Khan’s lawyers, told reporters outside the court in the northwestern city of Jodhpur.
The court also handed Khan — who earned $37 million in 2017, according to Forbes — a fine of 10,000 rupees ($150).
Hundreds of police were deployed outside to keep back fans of the body-building actor best known for his macho roles.
Khan, who wore black sunglasses and a figure-hugging black shirt, was escorted under heavy guard to jail where he will spent the night behind bars.
The case has gripped celebrity-obsessed India for years.
The 52-year-old bachelor has denied killing the rare antelopes known as black bucks during an alleged hunting safari in 1998.
The four other Bollywood stars — Saif Ali Khan, Sonali Bendre, Tabu and Neelam Kothari — also accused in the case were acquitted for lack of evidence.
Khan has accused Rajasthan’s forest department of trying to frame him.
His defence lawyers had suggested the black bucks had died of natural causes such as overeating, claiming there was no evidence the animals were shot.
– Controversial bad boy –
The scandal has dogged Khan almost his entire career and Thursday’s verdict shocked many of Bollywood’s leading lights.
“I feel this is too harsh. I do hope he gets the relief he deserves,” fellow actor Arjun Rampal posted on Twitter.
Film director Subhash Ghai said he was “extremely shocked”, saying Khan was loved by Bollywood not just for his movies but charity.
Hundreds of fans — many emulating Khan’s distinct hairstyle and fashion — gathered outside the megastar’s luxury apartment in Mumbai to express their disbelief and anger.
“He has paid for his crimes and shouldn’t be made to go to jail. The decision is extremely appalling,” said 26-year-old Mohammad Arif Khan.
“We are extremely saddened. Five years is too much, and he has already suffered enough,” said 43-year-old Sheikh Alimuddin.
But the Bishnois, a Rajasthani tribe seen as custodians of the region’s wildlife, celebrated the guilty verdict, letting off fire crackers and dancing in the street.
Khan spent a week in prison in 1998 when first accused of using unlicensed arms to shoot the black buck.
Last year he was cleared by a court over the alleged use of unlicensed guns on the expedition. A higher court is challenging his acquittal.
Khan was also found guilty of killing gazelles on the alleged hunting trip and served a very brief stint in jail in 2006, but was later acquitted on appeal.
No stranger to controversy, Khan was cleared in 2015 of killing a homeless man in a hit-and-run accident. That decision is now being challenged in the Supreme Court.
Indian courts can often take years — and sometimes decades — to pronounce verdicts.
He was also accused of assaulting a former Miss World and provoked a firestorm in 2016 by saying his workout schedule for a film left him feeling “like a raped woman”.
But the off-screen drama has done little to dampen his appeal.
The actor known as “bhai”, meaning “brother” in Hindi, enjoys a cult-like status with the majority of his devotees, young men who envy Khan’s glamorous lifestyle.
Bollywood film industry analyst Komal Nahta said the conviction and any jail term would only delay movies but not seriously harm his career.
“He is a superstar whose films guarantee huge box office numbers,” Nahta told AFP. “A jail term might affect a few films that are in the pipeline.”
“These films can wait as they have not yet begun production and at present it would only mean a loss of time rather than money investment.”
Khan remains one of Bollywood’s biggest draws despite his off-screen drama, starring in more than 100 films and television shows.
He finished second behind Shah Rukh Khan in the 2017 Bollywood earnings rankings. Both the Khans are among the top 10 most highly paid actors in the world.
The Bollywood heartthrob’s latest blockbuster “Tiger Zinda Hai” (Tiger is alive) collected some $85 million worldwide.