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Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius speaks with his legal team ahead of his sentence hearing at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Masi Losi/Pool

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By TJ Strydom and Tanisha Heiberg

PRETORIA (Reuters) - South African Paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius was sent back to jail for six years on Wednesday for murdering Reeva Steenkamp, less than half the 15 year minimum term sought by prosecutors.

Pistorius, who fatally shot his girlfriend four times through a toilet door, has already served 12 months in prison for her death. But the original manslaughter conviction was increased to murder by the Supreme Court of Appeal in December.

Judge Thokozile Masipa, whose sentence at the initial manslaughter trial was criticised by women's groups as too lenient, said she had accepted the defence argument that a lesser punishment was appropriate.

"Public opinion may be loud and persistent but it can play no role in the decision of this court," Masipa said. "I am of the view that a long term in prison will not serve justice."

Pistorius, who stood impassively as the sentence was read out, hugged members of his legal team and chatted briefly with his sister Aimee before being led away by police.

Women's rights groups say Pistorius has received preferential treatment by the justice system compared to non-whites and those without his wealth or international celebrity status. His backers say he did not intend to kill Steenkamp.

The state and large sections of the South African public had demanded a 15 year jail term, the prescribed minimum term for murder, saying he had shown no remorse for the 2013 killing.

It was unclear whether the state, which has two weeks to appeal, would accept Wednesday's sentence.

Pistorius' defence team said he would not appeal and that their client would be able to apply for parole after serving half to two-thirds of the sentence.

The track star, who had the lower part of his legs amputated when he was a baby, was freed from prison last October after almost a year behind bars. He was to serve the remainder of his five-year term under house arrest at his uncle's house in a wealthy suburb of the capital. Pistorius has been living with his uncle since.

STEENKAMP FAMILY REACTION

Steenkamp's father Barry, who in an emotional statement to the sentencing hearings said Pistorius must pay for his crime, declined to comment on the prospects for an appeal.

"We'll leave that to the state," he told reporters without showing any emotion.

In her ruling on Wednesday, Masipa said that although the Steenkamps had suffered a great loss, Pistorius' life and career were also in ruins.

"The life of the accused shall also never be the same. He is a fallen hero and can never be at peace," she said.

The judge agreed with defence that the Pistorius who shot Steenkamp in the early hours of St Valentine's Day was not the gold medal winning athlete but a vulnerable 1.5m tall man.

She said that there was no indication at all that the deceased was in an abusive relationship with Pistorius. She also said there was no evidence there had been a row between Pistorius and Steenkamp before her death, as suggested by the prosecution.

Pistorius says he fired four shots into the toilet door at his luxury Pretoria home in the mistaken belief that an intruder was hiding behind it.

His defence argued that his disability and mental stress that occurred in the aftermath of the killing should be considered as mitigating circumstances to reduce his sentence.

DIVISIVE CASE

Outside the court, a group of supporters held up placards backing the athlete. One read: "Give Oscar his freedom back please".

Legal analysts were divided by the ruling in a country beset by high levels of violent crime against women.

"To reduce from 15 to 6 years in the circumstances of the case seems to me to be unduly generous to Oscar," Paul Hoffman, a lawyer and director of rights group Accountability Now, said.

"It's quite possible that having invested so much effort in the prosecution ... that (state prosecutor) Gerrie Nel will saddle up again and ride out in an effort to get a bigger sentence," he said.

Johannesburg-based lawyer Ulrich Roux doubted the state would appeal, saying the judge had delivered a "just sentence, considering that he was convicted with murder with indirect intent."

But the Women's League of the ruling African National Congress (ANCWL), said the sentence was too soft.

"First five years, now six years? She is an embarrassment to the justice system," ANCWL spokeswoman Jacqueline Mofokeng said of Masipa. "It is an insult to women in this country."

(Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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