PRETORIA – Star athlete Oscar Pistorius is spending his first night in jail as he starts serving a five-year sentence behind the towering walls of a grim South African prison after a sensational trial for killing his girlfriend.
The "Blade Runner" is just one of more than 7,000 inmates of the Kgosi Mampuru prison in Pretoria, where he was taken after being sentenced for shooting dead model Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day last year.
Judge Thokozile Masipa on Tuesday ordered Pistorius to serve a maximum five years in prison for culpable homicide after a seven-month trial watched live by millions around the world.
"It would be a sad day for this country if an impression were to be created that there was one law for the poor and disadvantaged and another for the rich and famous," said Masipa, South Africa's second black woman judge.
Lawyers said however that Pistorius will probably not serve the full term for the offence of culpable homicide, equivalent to manslaughter, and perhaps as little as 10 months before being moved to house arrest.
The case was a stunning fall from grace for the 27-year-old who made history by becoming the first double amputee Paralympian to compete against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, inspiring millions.
But during his trial, the prosecution painted a darker picture of the sports star, presenting a dangerously volatile young man with a penchant for guns, beautiful women and fast cars.
Life in prison will be very different, with stringent regulations governing inmates' visiting hours and what possessions they are allowed inside, including food. Sport clothes are only allowed following approval by authorities, computers are prohibited, and only one photo album can be kept.
Formerly known as Pretoria Central Prison, the facility was notorious for its brutality towards political prisoners held under the racist apartheid regime which collapsed 20 years ago.
Pistorius, who had wept and vomited at times during his trial, stood stock-still as he was sentenced, veins bulging in his forehead and his jaw muscles clenched.
A senior prison official told the local Eyewitness News that Pistorius had been seen by a psychologist and a chaplain because he was "tired and tense" after he checked into the jail.
Pistorius was allocated a cell in the hospital wing of the prison where eight other disabled inmates are held.
He was also sentenced to three years, suspended for five years, for accidentally firing a pistol under a table at a restaurant in Johannesburg in January 2013. Pistorius had testified that he shot Steenkamp, 29, four times through a locked bathroom door at his upmarket Pretoria home after he mistakenly believed she was an intruder.
Prosecutors had argued that he murdered her in a fit of rage after an argument.
Verdict hotly debated
As the court adjourned, Pistorius turned to look at the public gallery, then briefly took the hands of his family members and handed his watch to his uncle before being led by police to the cells.
Steenkamp's family welcomed the sentence, the dramatic end to a trial that began in March and was televised globally but was repeatedly adjourned.
Steenkamp's ailing father Barry said he was "very glad" the trial was over and a lawyer for the family said the sentence was "welcome."
Pistorius's uncle said the sprinter's family accepted the court's judgement, saying it had been a "painful process" for all involved.
"Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society," Arnold Pistorius said, while criticising the state for trying to find him guilty of premeditated murder. The verdict and the sentence have been hotly debated in South Africa, with many expressing the opinion that Pistorius literally got away with murder.
The Steenkamps' lawyer Dup de Bruyn said that the sentence will likely be served as two years in prison and three years under house arrest.
A member of Pistorius's legal team, Roxanne Adams, said he would likely serve a sixth of the five-year term – 10 months – before being transferred to house arrest.
No decision on appeals
Neither side indicated immediately whether they would appeal against either the September verdict or Tuesday's sentence.
State prosecution spokesman Nathi Mncube said they had been disappointed with the conviction for culpable homicide rather than murder.
But he added: "We have not made up our minds whether we are going to appeal or not."
The International Paralympic Committee said Pistorius – who won sprint gold medals at three Games – would not be allowed to compete in the next event in 2016 even if he was released early.
Masipa addressed the court for about an hour before delivering the sentence. She said she wanted to find a balance between retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation, dismissing defence claims that the disabled athlete would face particular suffering in prison.
The prosecution had called for 10 years in jail for the athlete, while the defence pleaded for house arrest and community service.
With the conviction and sentence, Pistorius has lost his glittering sports career, lucrative contracts and – above all – his hero status. — AFP