MELBOURNE Feb 16 – Australian police called for calm as a suspected arsonist was named in court on Monday, while a day of mourning was called for victims of rampaging wildfires that killed more than 180 people.
A magistrate lifted an order suppressing the name of 39-year-old Brendan Sokaluk, who prosecutors say started a fire that killed some 11 people and razed about 200 homes.
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, although no angry protesters turned up.
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, 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.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that a national day of mourning for all victims of the fires would be held on Sunday.
"This day will give all Australians the chance to reflect and remember this terrible tragedy, as an important step in rebuilding these communities," Rudd said in a statement.
The day the fires swept through homes and towns – February 7 – would be etched in the nation’s memory as a day of "disaster, death and mourning" and it was important to reflect on the tragedy, he said.
A memorial service in Melbourne at the Rod Laver Arena, the huge stadium that is the home of the Australian Open tennis tournament, is expected to be broadcast live on television and radio.
Thousands of firefighters are still battling eight blazes burning out of control around Victoria – down from more than 20 a few days ago – but no towns were under direct threat, officials said.
Favourable weather is expected until Wednesday but no heavy rain is forecast and strong winds could whip up the fires again, said Country Fire Authority spokesman Gary Weir.
"Fuels are very dry still and even under the southerly winds, people have to be alert," he told reporters.
"At the moment, there are no threat warnings out to any communities. All it takes is for the wind to pick up and, basically, we could be at it again."
The death toll of 181 is expected to rise as more bodies are found in the charred rubble of homes and towns, police say. Around 1,800 homes were destroyed in the fires.