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Countdown begins for Sanjay Dutt in Mumbai bombings trial

By Probir Pramanik, IANS

Mumbai : With the long-drawn trial into the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings reaching a climax, all eyes are now on the impending sentencing of Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt.

The special anti-terrorist court here, which has been trying the case for the last 14 years and has already sentenced 12 people to death, will be taking up Tuesday the sentencing of the last four of the 100 convicts. Dutt and three friends who had helped him destroy an AK-56 assault rifle he had are the only ones left in the case to know their fate.

The court under the Terrorist And Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) had Nov 28 last year spared Dutt, the most high profile of the convicts, from the stringent TADA Act, saying he was not part of the conspiracy that led to the blasts in which 257 people were killed and more than 800 injured.

The actor, who in his confession pleaded that the assault rifle was only for "self-defence", was however pronounced guilty for a lesser offence of illegal possession of arms including the AK-56.

Dutt and three of his associates, Yusuf Nulawala, Kersi Adejania and Rusi Mula, were convicted under the Arms Act. Their charges carry a minimum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum imprisonment of 10 years.

The affable actor is banking on his mass appeal to swing the judiciary in his favour.

"Sanjay's reel life transformation from a cold, calculating Khalnayak (a villain he portrayed) to a loveable Munnabhai (another movie character) has been his transformation in real life too," says a member of the actor's battery of lawyers.

Dutt's legal team is now relying on the little known Probation of Offenders Act (POA) for relief. According to the act, the court is empowered to grant probation to an offender on the basis of the offence, circumstances and the character of the offender.

"We have pleaded that Sanjay Dutt is not a habitual offender. And as he is convicted for a 'technical offence' and further he has never violated bail conditions, we are relying on getting probation," said his counsel Satish Maneshinde.

Dutt has received tremendous support going by the letters that have poured into the TADA court, requesting judge Pramod Kode to be lenient to him.

Dutt, son of former Bollywood icons Sunil Dutt and Nargis, had received support from four eminent citizens, including yesteryear Bollywood actor Dilip Kumar, former Mumbai sheriff Nana Chudasama, anti-drug activist Yusuf Merchant and child activist Vipula Kadri. They had submitted affidavits giving a clean chit to his character in a move to strengthen his plea for probation.

Legal experts here say that in case the TADA court rejects Dutt's plea for probation as the prosecution has been emphasising the "seriousness" of the crime, judge Kode would have to sentence the actor to a minimum of five years' imprisonment.

"We are opposing the probation plea on grounds that the cine star was no youngster when the crime was committed. He was 33 years old and mature enough to know that an AK-56 rifle is a weapon of mass destruction. We will press for a maximum sentence," special public prosecutor Ujjal Nikam told IANS.

Dutt has already stayed 16 months in jail after his bail was cancelled July 4, 1994. The actor was first arrested on April 19, 1993, after he returned from a shooting stint in Mauritius following the bombing. His co-accused have also sought relief under the POA.

The actor has gone through a lot of trauma during the 14-year trial.

First, he lost his wife Richa to cancer and then lost the custody of his only daughter Trishala to her maternal grandparents. Dutt now shares a good relationship with Trishala, who is studying law in the US. In fact the court had extended his bail early this year on the plea that his daughter was in India to visit him.

Following his divorce from his second wife Rhea Pillai, he lost his father Sunil Dutt in May 2005.