Was this handsome film star drunk behind the wheel?
It was May 2015. At Bombay High Court, Bollywood actor Salman Khan had just been found guilty of culpable homicide, rash and negligent driving, and driving under the influence of liquor.
Thirteen years before, he’d been travelling home in his Toyota Land Cruiser after a night of alleged drinking at Mumbai’s Marriott Hotel.
The case showed the facts as they were seen at the time… As Khan drove through Bandra, a city suburb, he lost control of the car, mounted the pavement, crashed into the front of a bakery, and ran over the five men who were sleeping in the store’s doorway.
All of them were homeless, sleeping rough.
Kalim Mohammed Pathan, Munna Malai Khan, Abdullah Rauf Shaikh and Muslim Shaikh were all badly injured.
But Nurullah Mehboob Sharif was killed – crushed to death under the wheels of the car.
By the time the police reached the scene, Salman Khan had fled. People had started to gather at the site, and he’d been scared of being recognised, set upon.
But his bodyguard had stayed behind.
Ravindra Patil had been with Salman Khan all evening.
He told police he was in the car at the time of the crash and that Khan had been drunk behind the wheel – doing 90kph.
Salman Khan was arrested and charged. And, for the next 13 years, the case dragged slowly through the Indian legal system.
Meanwhile, Khan carried on making films and appearing in magazines and adverts.
Accounts of his romances with Bollywood’s most beautiful women were rarely off the front pages.
But Nurullah Mehboob Sharif’s family were suffering. They’d barely got by on Nurullah’s bakery wages. Now his 12-year-old son had to leave school and find a job.
Finally, the court reached its decision. Salman Khan hadn’t intended to kill anyone.
But he had known the dangers of drink-driving, and that made him guilty of culpable homicide.
He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Khan launched an immediate appeal, saying he wasn’t guilty. His prison sentence was suspended until the appeal had been heard, and he was freed on bail.
Eight months on, in December 2015, the court met to decide if Khan’s appeal should be upheld…
His lawyers claimed he had only been drinking water that night. And the only person who claimed he’d been drunk was his bodyguard.
But Patil wasn’t a reliable witness, Khan’s lawyers argued, due to inconsistencies in his statement.
Besides, he couldn’t give any further evidence – he was dead.
In 2006, Patil had gone missing from Mumbai, turning up a year later in a hospital in a town to the south of the city.
He’d contracted a deadly strain of tuberculosis.
In any case, it wouldn’t have made any difference if Salman Khan was drunk that night or not if his lawyers’ claim – that it wasn’t him behind the wheel at all that night – was true.
They claimed it was his driver Ashok Singh. That, normally a dependable, experienced driver, that night Singh had lost control of the car when a tyre had burst.
Nurullah’s death had been a tragic accident. Ashok Singh himself admitted that to the court.
The lawyers for the prosecution argued back that Salman Khan was lying.
And they had a witness to back up their claim.
He was the parking assistant at the Marriott Hotel where Khan had been that night. He claimed he’d given Salman the keys to the Land Cruiser, and that Khan had climbed into the driver’s seat.
In the back seat, the parking assistant had seen Salman’s cousin, the famous singer Kamaal Khan.
But Salman Khan’s lawyers had witnesses of their own – two guests at the hotel that night had seen four people in the car.
Hearing this, the parking assistant hesitated, casting doubt on his evidence.
It seemed, no-one could be sure who was in the car, and who was driving it. So noone could be certain what crime, if any, had been committed…
Salman Khan had never wavered in proclaiming his innocence.
Meanwhile, Nurullah’s family agreed that the incident was accidental.
‘In my view, the act was not intentional,’ Nurullah’s now grown-up son told journalists. ‘It was an accident. My father happened to be the unfortunate victim.’
But it wasn’t up to Nurullah’s family to decide whether Salman Khan was guilty of culpable homicide or not.
That decision lay with the appeal court.
And, in December 2015, the court once more retired to consider its verdict.
The court upheld the appeal, and overturned Salman Khan’s conviction.
The appeals judge ruled there was not enough evidence, and acquitted Khan of all charges against him.
‘The prosecution failed to establish the charges beyond reasonable doubt,’ the judge added.
Since his acquittal, Salman Khan has continued making films.