Bollywood star's plight highlights jail conditions

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The Independent Online

There has been an unsual crowd of prisoners gathered around the entrance to cell number 230 in Jodhpur Central Jail this week. The men jostling each other for space outside, most of them petty theieves and pickpockets, are all straining for a glimpse of the man inside, and perhaps, if they are lucky, an autograph. Because the new occupant of the cell just happens to be one of the biggest stars in Bollywood: Salman Khan.

This week the enfant terrible of Bollywood is facing the gruesome reality of life inside an Indian prison. Jailed for five years earlier this week for killing a protected species of deer on a hunting trip, Khan was unceremoniously hustled straight from the courtroom to his cell. His plight there has shone a light on the atrocious conditions inside Indian prisons.

Jodhpur Central, in the arid state of Rajasthan, is notorious for the burning heat of its cells. But the prisoners sleep under heavy quilts all the same - it's the only way to keep at bay the hordes of mosquitoes that live inside the cells.

Dinner for Khan on his first night was a watery vegetable curry so unappetising that at first he refused it, only agreeing to eat when the hunger became too much for him.

"The most important thing in an Indian prison is to avoid getting into a fight with anyone," said one social acdtivist who has spent several nights inside a Delhi jail. "Most of the prisoners have knives, and the guards do nothing to interfere if the prisoners fight each other. Often prisoners are stabbed to death."

In that at least Khan has been lucky: for his own safety, he has been placed not in the severely overcrowded communal rooms in which most prisoners are housed, but in a small cell he shares with one other prisoner - a man serving a life sentence for murder.

It is rare for anyone as rich and famous as Khan to find themselves inside an Indian jail. Usually, their lawyers spin cases out for years in the slow-moving legal system. Often witnesses are bribed or threatened into changing their testimony.

But that is changing. Khan is one of the first big names to be convicted on the back of a huge public outcry at the way the rich were committing crimes and getting away with it.

His case has also become a public test of the authorities commitment to protecting the many endangered species India is home to. Environmentalists are up in arms after it emerged that as many as half of India's tigers may have been killed by poachers. The black buck deer which Khan was found guilty of killing on a hunting expedition during a break from filmimng in 1998 is highly endangered.

Known in India as Bollywood's bad boy, Khan has been in trouble with the law before. He has already been found guilty of killing a black buch in a separate case, last year, but in that case a higher court granted him bail until his appeal has been heard.

He is also facing another case for alleged drunk-driving in 2002, when he lost control of his Toyota Landcruiser and careened into a Bombay pavement where homeless people were sleeping. One of the homeless was killed, and three others were injured.

When she heard the sentence against him this week, Khan's mother collapsed and was rushed to hospital with chest pains. The movie stars and models who have turned up to visit him at the prison this week have mostly been turned away - he is only allowed three visitors a fortnight.

Khan is applying for bail today while a new appeal against the verdict is heard, and if he gets it, will have spent only three nights in prison. But even his brief incarceration is a sign that times are changing in India.