So, Salman Khan can continue to be out of jail in the 2002 hit-and-run case. Hours after the trial court sentenced him to five years in prison on May 6, the Mumbai High Court granted him a 48-hour reprieve. And, on May 8, Friday, the High Court suspended the sentence, extended Salman's bail and sent netizens into overdrive. The Twitterati lampooned the judgment as a “Friday release blockbuster”.
The court is currently on summer vacation; next hearing will be on June 15. The hearing will decide the contours of the arguments to be made in the case. The actual hearing on the appeal is expected to begin in mid-July.
The most interesting part of the appeal would be the argument over picking the most relevant part of Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with “punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder”. Currently, Salman has been charged under Section 304 Part II. His lawyers will push for the milder Section 304 A.
Legal sources said “304 Part I is for acts accompanied by intention [to kill], while Part II deals with acts not accompanied by intention, but with knowledge that the act was likely to cause death.” In English that would mean that Part II, in Salman's case, can be interpreted as the actor did not drink and drive to kill, but he knew that driving under influence could cause death. Section 304 Part II carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Section 304 A is for “rash or negligent acts not amounting to culpable homicide”. The maximum sentence is two years. Lawyers say that it would be difficult to argue that Salman drove under influence, but did not know that the act could cause death.
So, Salman's team will go for a different tack. On May 8, Salman's lawyer Amit Desai had pointed out in the High Court that the trial judge had ignored the testimony of Salman's driver Ashok Singh, who had confessed to driving the SUV on the fateful night. In the trial court, Salman's lawyer Srikant Shivade had raised the same issue.
The Mumbai Police's carelessness in gathering evidence will stand Salman & Co in good stead. The police had failed to collect fingerprints from the steering wheel, which would have conclusively proved the identity of the driver. The defence has already said that the hospital boy—who was in charge of the actor's blood sample, which showed high alcohol levels—could have mixed up samples.
Legal eagles are unanimous that Khan's quantum of sentence will be slashed to less than half of what it is now, irrespective of how the argument goes. “It is likely that Khan will finally end up getting just a year or a little more than that. Anyway, the five-year term is a little on the harsher side,” said Abha Singh, the activist-lawyer who made the case a public movement.
Singh has been raising the issue of singer Kamaal Khan, who was in the SUV and had given a statement to the police saying that only he, Salman and constable Ravindra Patil, the actor's bodyguard, were in the vehicle. Patil, too, in the FIR, had said that Salman was at the wheel.
Patil died of tuberculosis later. Kamaal, a British citizen, left the country. And, the Mumbai Police dropped him from the list of witnesses. Singh's client Santhosh Daundkar has approached a sessions court, accusing the Mumbai Police of perjury by dropping a star witness.
As for Salman, he is back on the shop floor. His lawyers have argued that since he was out on bail throughout the trial, the appeal is being considered as a continuation of the trial. So, existing bail conditions automatically apply to him.