An Indian judge has sentenced Bollywood superstar Salman Khan to five years in jail over the killing a homeless man in a 2002 hit-and-run after a night out drinking.
Judge DW Deshpande found Khan guilty of culpable homicide after driving his Toyota Land Cruiser into a group of homeless men sleeping rough in suburban Mumbai after spending the evening in an upmarket bar.
One man was killed and several others were injured in the incident.
Khan, the star of blockbusters such as Dabangg (Fearless), looked stunned as the sentence was read out, according to reporters inside the courtroom.
He had always denied being behind the wheel, but now faces up to 10 years in prison, potentially bringing the career of one of the Indian movie industry’s biggest box-office stars to a shuddering halt.
Khan’s lawyer Shrikant Shivade argued against prison for his client. He said Khan had given generously to charity and was also suffering from a neurological condition.
But prosecutor Pradeep Gharat said that “fines are not enough”, adding that “the punishment has to be a deterrent” to others.
The sentence was expected to be passed later Wednesday.
Trial finally begins after 12 years
The trial began in earnest in 2014 after a series of court hearings and legal hold-ups.
A string of 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.
When 49-year-old Khan finally took the stand in March, he pleaded not guilty and told the court that his driver was responsible for mounting the pavement in the upmarket suburb of Bandra West.
The driver testified in court last month that he had been behind the wheel, and that the crash occurred after the front left tyre burst, making steering and braking difficult.
But the judge found him guilty of all charges including driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Khan is likely to appeal the verdict, while the court was now hearing submissions from his lawyers on the length of sentence to be decided by the judge.
A constable attached to Khan’s security detail said in his statement to police that the drunk actor lost control of the car while driving at about 90 kilometres per hour.
“The people were sleeping on the footpath. Salman and (his cousin) Kamaal ran away from the spot,” the constable, who died in 2007 of tuberculosis, said.
One of the sleeping labourers injured in the accident said in his statement that “Salman was so drunk he fell. He stood but he fell again and then he… ran away”.
Khan was ‘only drinking water’
Khan’s lawyers said the action and romantic comedy star had in fact been drinking water all evening and had climbed out of the driver’s seat after the accident because the passenger side door had been damaged.
They also said that the victim, Nurulah Mahbob Sharif, was killed during an operation to move the car, rather than the crash itself, when the bumper fell off and landed on him.
Television news channels carried virtually non-stop coverage on Wednesday, with camera crews parked outside Khan’s home and surrounding the court.
Khan, the son of a respected film writer, has starred in more than 100 films and television shows since his first hit Maine Pyar Kiya (I Fell in Love) in the 1980s.
But the body building actor is no stranger to controversy off screen and he spent more than a week behind bars for killing an endangered Indian gazelle in 1998 during a hunting trip.
The verdict has been keenly awaited both by his fans and Bollywood studios who stand to lose millions of dollars if they have to cancel filming for movies he has been signed up to.
One report by the Press of Trust of India said more than $US31 million was riding on the verdict.
If he were to be jailed, Khan would become the second big-name Bollywood actor to be imprisoned in the last two years.
Sanjay Dutt, the star of a series of gangster movies, is behind bars over possession of weapons linked to several bombings in Mumbai in 1993.