Court Lifts Gag Order in Australian Arson Suspect's Case

A gag order in the case of the only arson suspect in Australia's recent deadly wildfires has been lifted, despite threats on his life.

Brendan James Sokaluk, 39, is accused of starting a recent bushfire which resulted in the deaths of at least 11 people. Magistrate John Klestadt said he had little doubt Sokaluk's identity would be known regardless of any court order.

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"I am not persuaded that the suppression of his name will have any real effect within that community,'' said Klestadt.

Earlier, Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon had warned people not to threaten Sokaluk, despite emotions running high after last week's devastating bushfires.

"Coming to court and protesting is not an appropriate thing to do,'' said Nixon.

Sokaluk faces a maximum sentence of 25 years on the first charge, and 15 years on the second. He was also charged with possessing child pornography, which carries a 5-year maximum sentence.

His hearing comes on the same day as the sentencing of a pregnant arsonist, which has caused dismay among firefighters in the Gippsland region.

Rosemary Ann Harris, 31, was sentenced to three years with a minimum of two-and-a-half behind bars for lighting two fires on a total fire ban day in December 2006.

A spokeswoman for the Victorian Country Fire Authority said the suspect may have been a volunteer firefighter 20 years ago. She spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy, and declined to elaborate.

Firefighter Pat Thatcher said the sentence, for an offence which carries a maximum of five years' jail, was too soft.

"A message needs to be sent, she should have got much more," said Thatcher.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.