Australian police called for calm as a suspected arsonist was named in court today, while a day of mourning was called for victims of rampaging wildfires that killed 189 people. A magistrate lifted an order suppressing the name of Brendan Sokaluk, 39, who prosecutors say started a fire that killed 11 people and razed about 200 homes. Mr Sokaluk, who has been charged with arson causing death and intentionally lighting a bush fire, did not appear in court and was remanded in protective custody amid fears angry prisoners will target him.
He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in jail if convicted on the arson charge. Earlier, state police chief Christine Nixon had appealed to the public to stay away from the court and allow the justice system to deal with the suspect. "We hope that we don't have to deal with a gang of people who are angry and concerned about this arrest," Nixon said. There was a heavy police presence in court for the hearing today, although no angry protesters turned up.
Mr Sokaluk's lawyer Helen Spowart said, however, there was a real risk of vigilante attacks against her client and his family if his name was published. Arguing that the suppression order on naming him should remain in place, Ms Spowart said community feelings about Australia's worst bushfires disaster were so strong that anyone accused of arson was in danger, even in prison. "This is an extraordinary case," she told the court. "The level of emotion and anger and disgust that the alleged offences have aroused in the community is unprecedented."
Magistrate John Klestadt lifted the suppression order, ruling it would have little practical effect. Police are investigating some of the other fires that raged through Victoria state, with arson suspected in at least one other major blaze that destroyed the town of Marysville and killed up to 100 people. Manwhile, the death toll has risen to 189, police said today. Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said the figure would increase as the charred rubble of houses and towns is searched for bodies. The latest figure included 43 people from the town of Marysville, which is believed to have lost up to 100 of its 500 residents in the fires.