February 13, 2009
Australian Bush Fire Suspect Charged
Police have charged a man in connection with the recent bush fires that have ravaged southern Australia. He is believed to be 39 years old and an Australian, though his identity has not yet been revealed as he is currently being held at a secret location for fear of reprisals from the surviving victims of the scorching fires.
The number of deaths from the fires currently stands at 181 at the time of writing, with 1800 homes destroyed leaving over 7000 people homeless.
Full report from TimesOnline:
"An Australian man has been charged with arson over one of the country’s deadly bushfires, but his identity has been suppressed and police have moved him to a secret location amid fears of a backlash by victims seething with grief and anger.
The 39-year-old has been charged with lighting the Churchill-Jeeralang bushfire in the LaTrobe valley region of Gippsland. The suspect is a local man. Twenty-one people died in the eastern Victorian region where the Churchill fire began.
The man appeared in the regional Morwell Magistrates Court on Friday afternoon charged with three counts – one of arson causing death, one of intentionally or recklessly causing a bushfire, and one of possessing child pornography.
There are fears of an enormous backlash by mourning members of the Churchill community, angry over the fact that one of their own has been charged with the fire that devastated 36,000 ha of land, destroyed hundreds of homes and killed dozens of their friends and neighbours.
As a result, the court hearing was closed and a suppression order was imposed on all details of his identity. The man was secretly transferred to Melbourne on Friday afternoon where he is expected to face court again on Monday.
On Wednesday, Janice Michelsson, whose house in Callignee burnt down in the Churchill fires, wrote an open letter in the local paper addressed to the arsonist responsible for the fires in her area.
“You bastard. You are a fire terrorist. You are a murderer. You have taken my neighbours, my friends. You have taken my home. Do you hate people so much that you really want to see this misery?” Ms Michelsson, 42, wrote under the headline: ‘I am disgusted by you’.
Dannye Moloney, the Victoria Police Assistant commissioner, would not disclose any details about the arrest or what led police to the man.
He said the suspect was moved from the Gippsland area to Melbourne for “security reasons”. Mr Moloney stressed the man had been charged in relation to last Saturday's fire and not the blazes in nearby Boolarra the previous week.
“It is very, very important for the community, especially around the Gippsland area, for a clear understanding that the charges relate solely to last Saturday,” he told reporters.
Scores of bushfires devastated Victoria on the weekend, killing 181 people, destroying more than 1,800 homes and leaving 7,000 homeless.
Many were sparked naturally by freak weather conditions, but up to five were believed to have been deliberately lit. Since a special police task force was set up to investigate the suspicious fires, arsonists have become the most hated people in Australia.
Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, has accused people who deliberately light bushfires of being “mass murderers”.
On Friday the Victorian Premier John Brumby would not comment directly on the man charged with lighting the Churchill fires, but voiced his anger about the arsonists who are partly responsible for the devastation to his home state, labelling it is a “heinous crime”.
“I've made very clear my views about arson. It's such a shocking, terrible thing to do,” Mr Brumby said. “We've seen some shocking fires and people who light fires deliberately put the community and human life at great risk.”
“I don't intend to comment on the specifics of this matter but it's an unspeakable and heinous crime.
“I hope now that when an individual has been charged that the normal course of justice will be undertaken.”
The Churchill fire remains out of control, but is no longer posing a threat to communities in the region. It has killed 12 people from the town of Callignee, four each in Hazelwood and Koornalla, and one in Jeeralang.
The arrest came as police confirmed on Friday that fires at Marysville, Murrindindi, Buxton and Narbethong were being treated as suspicious. Up to 100 people are believed to have been killed in Marysville alone.
Two small fires were also deliberately lit around Melbourne on Thursday night as the Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon voiced fears over copycat arsonists. She said police were also working around the clock in the pursuit of arsonists."