An Indian court convicted the Bollywood star Salman Khan on Thursday in two cases of killing rare antelopes, settling — for now — a bitter legal battle that has stretched over nearly 20 years.
In pronouncing the verdict, Dev Kumar Khatri, the chief magistrate of the court in Rajasthan State, called Mr. Khan a “habitual offender” against India’s wildlife protection laws. Mr. Khatri sentenced Mr. Khan to five years in prison, and also directed him to pay a small fine.
Four other actors accused of being involved in killing the antelopes, called blackbucks and protected under the law, were acquitted for lack of evidence. Mr. Khan is expected to spend the night in jail in the city of Jodhpur. His lawyers said they would appeal the decision and apply for bail.
The case stretches back to 1998 when prosecutors said Mr. Khan, one of India’s biggest stars, went hunting with several other actors outside a forest reserve near Jodhpur while shooting the film “Hum Saath Saath Hain.”
Members of the Bishnoi community, who consider the antelope a reincarnation of a 600-year-old guru and say they would sacrifice their lives to protect the animal, said that they heard gunshots just after midnight on Oct. 1 and rushed to the forest. Witnesses said they had seen a car speeding away, and that they thought they recognized the driver as Mr. Khan, who was also accused of killing several protected deer in the area.
Reports of the hunting trip set off protests, and Mr. Khan was taken into custody. Eight years later, he was convicted of killing the two antelopes and sentenced to five years in prison. But Mr. Khan appealed the decision to the Rajasthan High Court, and the sentence was quickly suspended after a brief period in jail.
Mr. Khan, 52, had several subsequent brushes with the law. He was accused of killing a homeless man while driving drunk in Mumbai, a charge he was acquitted of, and of domestic abuse by a former girlfriend, the actress Aishwarya Rai.
In 2016, the Rajasthan High Court acquitted Mr. Khan of shooting the protected deer, known as chinkara, overturning previous convictions.
Outside the courtroom on Thursday, hundreds of police officers were dispatched to hold back fans and manage the crowd.
After the verdict was announced, some came to Mr. Khan’s defense. The Indian film actress and politician Jaya Bachchan told reporters that Mr. Khan should be “given relief,” because “he has done a lot of humanitarian work.”
But others questioned why it had taken years for the court to convict Mr. Khan, adding that he had long benefited from impunity for being a celebrity. Members of the Bishnoi community cheered and lit firecrackers on the streets of Jodhpur.
Mr. Khan has long maintained his innocence, saying that he had been framed by the forest department “for publicity” and that a forensic team had found that the antelopes in question died from “natural causes.” Instead, Mr. Khan said in a 2009 interview that he had helped the animals, even feeding one biscuit.
“We saw a deer fawn, and he was stuck in a bush,” he said. “So I stopped the car. He was like petrified. So we took him out, I took him out from there. We have some water. Then he went to his pack and he went away.”
Source: The New York Times