Tue Nov 28, 2006
By Krittivas Mukherjee
MUMBAI (Reuters) – Top Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt was convicted on Tuesday of illegally possessing weapons but cleared of conspiracy charges in connection with a series of bomb blasts in Mumbai that killed 257 people in 1993.
Dutt, who had pleaded not guilty, had been charged with conspiracy, illegal possession of arms and trying to destroy evidence connected with an attack which shook Mumbai.
"During the reasoning, I have not found him to be a terrorist or a destructor," judge Pramod Kode told a crowded anti-terrorism court. Such charges can carry a life sentence in jail.
The firearms offence could attract a sentence of up to three years, but he has already served more than a year in prison during investigations.
Dutt's trial has transfixed Bollywood — the world's largest film industry by volume and ticket sales. Millions of dollars are riding on movies already under production which involve the star.
The special court in one of the world's longest running trials has found 91 people, mostly Muslims, guilty among 123 accused in the blasts blamed on India's most wanted man, Dawood Ibrahim, believed to be in Pakistan.
Sentences will be handed after all the verdicts are delivered, expected to take two more weeks.
Kode said Dutt would not be taken into custody until Dec. 19, after the actor pleaded for time to sort out family and film commitments. But he said Dutt could not leave Mumbai.
"I have said you are not a terrorist," the judge said again, this time addressing the sombre-looking actor who was in the court room wearing a red and grey shirt and blue jeans.
Dutt fidgeted in the court room and sat with his face in his hands after the verdict was read. Later, he stepped outside, accompanied by his lawyer, to smoke a cigarette.
"SENSE OF RELIEF"
In the run-up to the verdict, Dutt had said he was nervous and apprehensive.
"I'm going to bow my head and take whatever comes my way. And I will accept whatever the honourable court says to me," the actor told one TV channel.
Outside the court, there was a sense of relief among fans and supporters that Dutt had been acquitted on terrorism charges.
About 500 people, including members of the Congress party of which Dutt's father was a longtime member, gathered to hear the verdict.
"The slur of a terrorist has been erased," said Geeta Yadav, a Congress city council member who distributed sweets after the verdict.
Dutt's sister Priya, a member of parliament, said there was a "sense of great relief".
"We are ready to face whatever there is," she told Times Now TV news channel. "He's been pretty strong through it but tense. We all have been very tense."
Police say Ibrahim ordered the bombings to avenge the razing of a 16th century mosque by Hindu zealots in 1992. Ibrahim and his top associates have not faced trial as they fled the country soon after the blasts, they say.
Son of legendary film couple Sunil Dutt and Nargis, the actor initially said he had bought an automatic rifle from gangsters involved in the bombing, but only to protect his family. He later retracted the statement.
Arshad Warsi, a popular comedian who played Dutt's partner in "Lage Raho Munnabhai" — a gangster comedy and the biggest Bollywood hit of 2006 — said Dutt had been through enough.
"All of us have been stupid and naive some time in our life. Some have made bigger mistakes, some have made smaller mistakes," Warsi told the NDTV news channel. "In fact, he's not a terrorist, he's not a criminal."
(Additional reporting by C.J. Kurrien)