MUMBAI: Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt was released from prison early Thursday after serving almost four years of a five-year sentence for possessing weapons supplied by gangsters behind deadly bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1993.
The disgraced star touched the ground with his hand and saluted at the prison as he walked free in the western city of Pune, after authorities decided to release him ahead of schedule for good behavior.
Speaking to a huge crowd of gathered media outside his home in Mumbai, the smiling 56-year-old said his new-found freedom had still not sunk in.
“For 23 years I waited to taste freedom. Finally the day has arrived today that I walked out of the jail as a free man,” he said.
“It is still not sinking in… To be fully free is the most amazing feeling.”
Dutt was originally sentenced to a six-year term after being convicted in 2006 of possessing guns supplied by mafia bosses who orchestrated the series of bombings in Mumbai that killed 257 people.
He spent 18 months in prison before being released on bail in 2007, pending an appeal.
In March 2013, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction but cut his prison term from six years to five, and the star was sent back to jail to serve the remaining three-and-a half years of his sentence.
Fans, friends and family flocked to his house in Mumbai to celebrate, banging drums in the street and throwing garlands around his neck.
“This is his butterfly moment! The most glorious chapter of his life begins now!!,” tweeted the renowned Indian filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt.
Activists have fiercely opposed Dutt’s release eight months ahead of schedule, claiming he was being given special treatment because of his celebrity status.
Dutt was granted several months of freedom at different times during his jail spell including to work on unfinished Bollywood movies whose multi-million dollar productions were at risk.
Activists filed legal action in the Bombay High Court challenging his release, arguing that other prisoners waited years for a decision on their remission requests.
“What about all the other convicts especially on petty offenses who are rotting in jail?” petitioning lawyer Nitin Satpute told the Press Trust of India (PTI) on Wednesday.
But the Maharashtra state government and Dutt’s lawyers say the decision was made “according to normal procedures.”
The star was given credit for good behavior and taking part in jail activities like running a radio program and making paper bags, according to PTI.
As he left Pune airport for Mumbai Dutt thanks his fans for their support.
“I am out here because of their (fans’) support. There is no easy walk to freedom, my friends,” he said.
The actor shot to fame in the mid-1980s in a string of action movies in which he performed his own stunts, earning him the nickname “Deadly Dutt.”
He is best known for playing a mobster with a heart of gold in the popular “Munnabhai” series.
The 1993 attacks were believed to have been staged by Muslim underworld figures in retaliation for religious riots in which mainly Muslims died, following the razing of an ancient mosque at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state.
Dutt was found guilty of possession of an automatic rifle and a pistol, part of a cache of weapons brought to Mumbai before the attacks.
Dutt, whose Muslim mother and Hindu father were two of India’s biggest stars, insisted the two guns were only meant to protect his family in the tense atmosphere in Mumbai following the mosque’s destruction.
In 2007, he was acquitted of more serious charges of conspiracy in the deadly blasts, which also wounded more than 700 people.