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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 12:06 GMT
At the Childers hostel fire trial
Backpackers hostel
The smouldering remains of the hostel
By the BBC's Phil Mercer in Brisbane

For five days Robert Long has sat almost without moving in one of Australia's most ceremonial courts as state prosecutors began their arguments to prove he was responsible for the Childers backpacker hostel fire.

Fifteen people were killed, including seven young Britons.

A court drawing of the accused, Robert Long
Robert Long: Impassive in the dock
The 38-year-old fruit picker is a short man with brown hair and a bushy beard. He's uttered just two words all week in court, pleading "not guilty" to two specimen counts of murder and one of arson.

So far, the case against him hinges on a confession it's claimed he made after being shot three times by the police during his arrest and an alleged threat to kill a backpacker at the hostel in Childers before the fire on 23 June 2000.

One witness, a former hostel manager, admitted to the Supreme Court here in Brisbane that fire and smoke alarms were switched off in the weeks before the tragedy. The early warning system, he said, was malfunctioning and a local electrician had failed to turn up to fix it.

Gap year fears

The trial will touch families around the world. Three of the victims were Australian. There were others from Ireland, Holland, South Korea and Japan. Seven were British, aged between 19 and 28. The jury has been shown photographs of the charred rooms where their bodies were discovered.

The seven Britons were: Michael Lewis, 25, from Bristol; Natalie Morris, 28, from near Merthyr Tydfil; Adam Rowland, 19, from St Leonards in Sussex; Melissa Smith, 26, from Thatcham in Berkshire; Gary Sutton, 24, from Bath; Claire Webb, 24, from Ascot; and Sarah Williams, 23, from Aberfan in south Wales.

Gary Sutton, left, and Mike Lewis
Gary Sutton and Mike Lewis: On year-long trip
The jury asked the prosecution why Robert Long was accused of two murders - of 22-year-old Australian twins Kelly and Stacey Slarke - when 15 people had died in the Childers fire. Senior counsel David Meredith said additional charges would make an already complex case "unduly complicated". He added that he was not discounting the importance of deaths of the other victims.

Evidence baffles pupils

The trial of Robert Long is expected to last for six weeks. The evidence so far has been extremely detailed. Dozens of school children have briefly attended some of the sessions as part of a project. Some have little idea of the enormity of the case that's unfolding.

There was lots of people screaming, glass cracking - really nasty fire sounds with yelling inside

Witness Martin Woods
"I think it's about paper towels," one teenage girl was overheard saying to a classmate, who'd asked what was happening in Court Eight. A detailed investigation of the lay-out of the hostel and all its facilities, including the shower block, have been part of the prosecutors attempts to have the jury understand how it operated and where everything was located.

Although 169 witnesses have been listed to appear, it's unlikely all will be called. Next week the court is expected to hear from the team of police dog handlers who recorded Robert Long's alleged confession after his arrest in remote sugar cane fields.

Hostel after the fire
The remains of the hostel were bulldozed last week
Eight British backpackers are also due to take the stand in the coming days. Prosecutors believe they could hold the key to the trial. Among them is Vishal Tomar, the traveller Robert Long is said to have threatened to kill before the fire broke out.

The town of Childers is a farming community 300 km (185 miles) north of Brisbane in southern Queensland. A memorial to the 15 victims will be built on the site of the Palace Backpackers hostel. The original wrought iron facade, which survived the inferno, will be incorporated into the new building.

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