December 10 was a watershed day for Salman Khan as he was acquitted in a hit-and-run case. Like many other cases in India, shoddy investigation and a weak prosecution led the accused to walk free.
By Neeta Kolhatkar
After 13 years, the verdict in Salman Khan’s case was straight out of a film. He was acquitted by the Bombay High Court for running his car over five pavement dwellers outside a bakery on Hill Road, Bandra, in September 2002. One person was killed and four injured. The High Court order came after a session’s court in May convicted him of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced him to five years jail.
On December 10, 2015, as tension heightened in the High Court and people milled around, Salman’s bodyguard, Shera, reached the Court first to survey how best the star could avoid the scores of media persons and innumerable fans, which included bystan-ders, police, lawyers and even Court staff.
The Bombay High Court suddenly resembled a busy Mumbai street where a film shooting was taking place. Salman entered the gate adjacent to that of the judges’ wearing a white and blue check shirt and sporting a stubble. He had come straight from Karjat and looked tense and exhausted. The judge arrived at 1.35 pm and pronounced the order exactly a minute later.
Delivering the verdict, Justice AR Joshi said: “On the basis of evidence submitted by the prosecution, Salman cannot be convicted.” He added: “Prosecution has failed to establish its case against the appellant accused (Salman Khan) on all charges.”
The Court made stringent observations abo-ut the conduct of the lower court during this trial and criticized the lapses in police investigation. The judge said: “The burden is on the prosecution to establish the guilt of the accused and this needs to be done beyond reasonable doubt.”
As per observations, the trial in the lower court was based only on the statement of one key eyewitness, Ravindra Patil, who was Salman’s bodyguard and attached to the Mumbai police. Patil was present in Salman’s car at the time of the crash and in May, the session’s court took his evidence while convicting the actor. However, on December 10, the High Court said Patil was not a “wholly reliable witness”, and his version needed to be corroborated with that of other witnesses. Incidentally, the case saw 27 prosecution witnesses and one defense witness.
Police investigations could not prove that the person driving the car was Salman. The Court further said the trial court had erred in accepting bills of Rain Bar and Restaurant (where Salman had gone prior to this incident) without ascertaining the blood sample and alcohol test and more so, without a panchanama. The court also questioned why the mandatory procedure of recording the statements of at least five people was not conducted.
This led the Court to observe that investigations were conducted in a faulty manner and had many loose ends and hence, the benefit had to be given in favor of the accused. Salman was asked to pay `25,000 as a personal bond to ensure that in case Maharash-tra went in for appeal to the Supreme Court, he would be present in court. It also ordered the police to return his passport to him.
Soon after the verdict, a much-shaken and visibly overwhelmed Salman wept. Later, he intermittently smiled and cried, coming to terms with the fact that the biggest scare (of going to jail) was averted after 13 years.
“On the basis of evidence submitted by the prosecution, Salman cannot be convicted. Prosecution has failed to establish its case against the appellant accused on all charges.” -Justice AR Joshi, of the Bombay High Court.
In September 2002, soon after the incident, Salman was arrested by the Bandra police after an FIR was registered. His blood sample was collected at JJ Hospital to determine the alcohol content. He was granted bail the same day, but arrested later when he surrendered again before the Bandra police. Later, after a PIL was filed in the Bombay HC, Salman was directed to pay `19 lakh within two weeks to the victims as compensation. Out of this amount, `10 lakh was to be given to the family of Nurullah Mehboob Sharif, the person who died in the incident.
Hearing the present verdict, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is in the midst of a stormy season in the Assembly, said that his government would decide on the further course of action after examining the HC verdict.
Amit Desai, Salman’s advocate, told the media on behalf of his client: “It is very satisfying. It’s a big relief for him and he is very happy.” Meanwhile, Salman Khan tweeted that he accepted “the decision of the judiciary with humility. I thank my family, friends & fans for their support & prayers”.
The legal fraternity welcomed the verdict and said it needs to be respected. However, lawyers felt that the prosecutor and the police did not do a thorough job. Former IPS officer and advocate YP Singh said that if there were faults in the evidence, it could have been sent for retrial and other witnesses, including singer Kamaal Khan (who was in the car with Salman), should have been examined. “There could have been further examination of Kamaal Khan and other witnesses that were dropped in the High Court. Also, the prosecutor did not pursue the case effectively and the police did not match the magnitude of the other party’s legal panel,” said Singh. He added, “They should have appointed a senior counsel, as prescribed under the police manual. In fact, they should conduct an inquiry against the police and prosecute those who saved the accused.” Singh said this procedure is mandatory when strictures are passed against the prosecution and the police by the court.
Advocate Niteen Pradhan told India Legal that the public needs to accept the decision and was critical of the coverage given to this case. “Media trial and public perception do not determine the court’s verdict,” he said. He came down heavily on the media for trying to drive Salman Khan’s case as the national agenda for the day. “We are experts in sensationalizing non-issues. The victim’s widow was to be paid a hefty compensation and one needs to determine whether it was paid to her at the right time. Now she has remarried and has a large family and it needs to be ascertained if this money eventually reaches her or will be used by her family,” said Pradhan.
The court observed that investigations were faulty and had many loose ends and hence, the benefit had to be given in favor of the accused.
Immediately after the verdict, pandemonium broke out as hundreds of people descended inside the courtroom and crowded the corridor to get a glimpse of the star. Court staff even brought family members to see Salman and ran across the dais of the judge. As lawyers and others took selfies with the star from every angle despite a rule prohibiting mobile cameras inside court, the craze over Bollywood stars continued unabated.