Pakistan’s foreign minister has suggested that a Bollywood star who was sentenced to five years in prison for poaching a protected species of Indian antelope, received the lengthy punishment because he was Muslim.

Salman Khan, one of the highest paid actors in the world, was convicted of the 1998 shooting two rare blackbuck deer from his car window at a wildlife preserve near the city of Jodhpur, in the country’s north west.

The animals are protected by India’s wildlife laws. Public prosecutors alleged that the 52-year-old and four other actors in the car with him fled the scene, leaving the carcasses behind.

Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khawaja Asif, claimed that the actor who is known for his bad boy image, had received the long sentence because he was Muslim.

“Salman Khan has been sentenced because he’s a minority,” he told Pakistani news channel Geo TV.  “To sentence him in a case that is 20 years old goes on to show that lives of those who are Muslims, ‘untouchables’ or Christians are not valued in India”.

He added: “Maybe if he belonged to the religion of the ruling party of India he would not have been given such a harsh sentence and the court might have been lenient with him”.

Khan identifies as both Hindu and Muslim. In January 2017, he told the court: “I’m Hindu and Muslim both. I’m Bharatiya (an Indian)”.

After he was handed the sentence, along with a 10,000 rupee (£109) fine, his lawyers immediately said they would appeal and an urgent bail hearing was scheduled for Friday morning.

Khan was first arrested in the poaching case in October 1998. The incident was alleged to have taken place as he was making the film Hum Saath Saath Hain.

Four of his co-stars -Saif Ali Khan, Sonali Bendre, Tabu and Neelam – were also tried in the case, but they were all acquitted for lack of evidence.

India’s wildlife protection act bans the hunting of all but a few species of wild animals unless you possess a special permit.

Hundreds of police surrounded the courtroom in Jodhpur to contain the actor’s devoted fans.

Khan, who has appeared in more than 100 films, argued forest officials framed him “for publicity” and the blackbucks could have died from natural causes such as overeating.

The actor, whose film career has spanned more than 30 years, was taken to Jodhpur central jail after going to a local hospital to undergo a medical examination.

He has previously been sentenced to jail terms of one and five years in related poaching cases.

In 2006, Khan was convicted for killing the blackbucks and sentenced to five years in jail. But after spending a week in prison, the sentence was suspended by the Rajasthan High Court.

Seven years later he was acquitted of killing a homeless man in a 2002 hit-and-run incident. That decision is now being challenged in the supreme court.

@independent.co.uk

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