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PRETORIA (Reuters) - Disgraced South African track star Oscar Pistorius returns to court on Monday to find out whether he will serve a long stretch behind bars for the negligent killing of his model girlfriend, or walk out a free man.

After a six-month, on-off trial that captivated South Africa, and millions more around the world who admired Pistorius as a symbol of triumph over physical adversity, opinion is starkly divided on the eventual outcome.

A non-custodial sentence would likely spark public anger, fuelling a perception among black South Africans that, 20 years after the end of apartheid, wealthy whites can still secure preferential justice.

The Paralympic and Olympic athlete, whose lower legs were amputated as a baby, was convicted of culpable homicide last month for the Valentine s Day shooting of 29-year-old law graduate Reeva Steenkamp.

Judge Thokozile Masipa cleared the 27-year-old of the more serious charge of murder, saying prosecutors had failed to prove Pistorius intent to kill when he fired four 9mm rounds through the door of a toilet cubicle, in what he said was the mistaken belief an intruder was lurking behind it.

A murder conviction would have almost certainly carried a jail sentence. Culpable homicide, South Africa s equivalent of manslaughter, can be punished by anything from 15 years in jail to a suspended sentence or community service.

In a front page headline on Friday, South Africa s Times newspaper cited experts saying: Oscar won t go to jail . Conversely, Johannesburg s Star said he was likely to get as many as 10 years behind bars, with a portion suspended.

At the sentencing hearing, Masipa is likely to hear arguments from prosecution and defence, possibly for as long as a day each, and psychological and probation experts before making her ruling.

LEGAL REPERCUSSIONS

The decision by 66-year-old Masipa, only the second black woman to rise to South Africa s bench, to absolve Pistorius of murder drew criticism from legal experts and the public in a country infamous for violence, particularly against women.

The professional criticism centred on the legal notion of intent via dolus eventualis , whereby a person is held responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their actions. Laymen have pondered the practical consequences of the ruling, in particular what it meant for the legal principal of self-defence.

Pistorius said the shooting in his upmarket Pretoria home was a tragic mistake, but at the trial prosecutors presented a written firearms licence test in which he acknowledged that using lethal force against an intruder was only allowed if there was a direct threat to a person s life.

With this in mind, as well as the questions over Masipa s ruling on intent, the state could yet decide to appeal the culpable verdict in pursuit of a murder conviction.

We have many judgements which essentially say: If you point a firearm at someone and shoot, then you intend to kill them , said Steve Tucson, a law professor at Johannesburg s Wit waters rand University.

Under South African law, an appeal cannot be launched until sentencing has been concluded.

(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Jon Boyle)


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