The High Court of Bombay on Thursday granted bail to Aryan Khan, son of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, and two other suspects in a drugs case that has become mired in political controversy.
Mr Khan, 23, and seven others were arrested on October 2 after undercover agents from the Narcotics Control Bureau raided a cruise boat sailing off India's west coast from Mumbai city to the resort state of Goa.
He was being held in Mumbai’s high-security Arthur Road jail after several unsuccessful bail applications.
Last week, a lower court rejected Mr Khan's bail petition after observing that his WhatsApp chats appeared to link him to drug suppliers and peddlers.
The high court overturned that decision after a three-day hearing. He is likely to be freed only after bail conditions are set on Friday.
The court also granted bail to two other suspects arrested in the boat raid, all of whom are accused of sale, consumption, procuring banned substances, and conspiracy under India’s drug laws. Another 13 suspects were arrested in the following weeks.
The NCB claimed to have recovered small quantities of cocaine, mephedrone, marijuana, and ecstasy pills during the raid, although no drugs were found on Mr Khan, according to court documents.
Mr Khan denies all the charges. But the bureau claims to have found incriminating WhatsApp conversations on his mobile phone, linking him to an international drug ring and said his release would harm the investigation.
Prosecutors have been focusing on the conspiracy charges – a provision of the anti-drug law that presumes an accused person guilty unless they prove their innocence. Convicts face minimum jail terms of 10 years.
Mr Khan’s father Shah Rukh, 55, is a Bollywood megastar. He did not attend any of his son's bail hearings or make a public statement but visited him once in jail.
The actor – known as King Khan – has remained a non-controversial figure throughout his three-decade career and has received widespread support from fans.
His son’s arrest also stirred a public debate about narcotics use and laws in India, with growing calls for decriminalising personal drug use.
Consumption and trade of narcotics such as cannabis, opioids and psychotropic drugs are illegal in India but government estimates from 2019 say more than 61 million people were consuming hard and soft drugs.
While many people support the narcotics agency and criticised the film star over his son’s involvement in the case, key prosecution witnesses in the case have turned hostile and accused the NCB officer leading the investigation, Sameer Wankhede, of trying to extort money from the actor.
The witness, Prabhakar Sail, in a written statement to the court, said he overheard his employer, Kiran P Gosavi, a private detective and another witness in the case – discussing pay-offs of 250 million rupees ($3.34m) – out of which 80 million rupees were earmarked for Mr Wankhede.
Mr Gosavi, who was arrested on Thursday by Maharashtra police in a separate fraud case, had posted a selfie with Mr Khan at the NCB office.
Videos of him and another prosecution witness, Manish Bhanushali, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, escorting Mr Khan and co-accused Arbaaz Merchant to the bureau’s Mumbai office went viral on social media and raised suspicions about their role.
Mr Sail claimed that he was forced to sign blank documents by the officer and made a witness in the case, after which he received death threats from unknown people.
The bureau told a Mumbai court on Tuesday that Mr Sail’s extortion allegations were influenced by Pooja Dadlani, the actor’s manager.
Mr Wankhede and Mr Gosavi have denied the allegations. The NCB has ordered an internal investigation.
Mr Wankhede faces possible arrest after Mumbai Police launched a bribery investigation against him. He has said the allegations were an attempt to “create hurdles and scuttle the investigation" in the drug case.
He accused the state government of trying to implicate him after a minister, Nawab Malik, claimed that the officer was involved in forgery and extortion.
Last year, Mr Malik’s son-in-law was arrested by the officer over drug charges.
The case has also triggered a political tussle between Maharashtra’s ruling alliance and a federal agency controlled by Mr Modi’s government.
The bureau has faced flak over allegations that it was deliberately targeting film personalities to undermine the state government and show Mumbai, home to the Bollywood industry, as a drug haven.
But several leaders and supporters of Mr Modi’s party allege that the state government is soft on drug abuse and shields drug cartels.
Mr Wankhede was at the centre of a controversy last year involving the arrest of the actress Rhea Chakraborty after the death of her boyfriend and actor Sushant Singh Rajput following an alleged history of drug abuse.
His death brought to the fore the alleged abuse in the industry and the agency’s crackdown, including questioning of top actresses.