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Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Monday, 16 February 2009

Australian arson suspect named

Helen Spowart, Melbourne, 16 Feb 09
Defence lawyer Helen Spowart argued her client was at risk even in custody

A court has lifted a ban on identifying an arson suspect in Australia's deadly bushfires, despite fears of possible retribution attacks by angry residents.

Prosecutors say Brendan Sokaluk deliberately set a fire in Churchill, Victoria, in which 11 people died.

The 39-year-old was not in court to hear the judge lift the suppression order which kept his identity a secret.

At least 189 people are now known to have died in the dozens of bushfires that swept Victoria earlier this month.

Firefighters in the south-eastern state are still battling nine blazes.

Police have warned that the death toll could rise further as officers continue to search through the debris of razed houses for victims.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced that a national day of mourning will be held on Sunday for all victims of the bushfires.

Anger and disgust

Mr Sokaluk, a local man from the Gippsland region, is facing charges of arson causing death and of intentionally starting a bushfire.

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Firefighters continue to battle several blazes

Officials have previously said that 21 people were killed in the Churchill fire, but only 11 deaths were cited in court. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.

He faces a maximum 25-year sentence for the first charge, and 15 years for the second.

He was also charged with possessing child pornography, which carries a possible five-year term.

Debris in Kinglake, Australia

The Melbourne court was packed with journalists and onlookers, but the defendant chose to remain in police protective custody rather than attend.

Mr Sokaluk's defence lawyer told the court that there was an unprecedented level of emotion, anger and disgust at his alleged offences.

She said that even though her client was in protective custody there was a risk from vigilante attacks on him and his family, and asked that his name remain suppressed.

But the judge ruled that his identity was already well-known in his home community and that the suppression order served no practical effect.

The prosecution has asked for extra time to prepare its case, saying there would be up to 200 witnesses to interview.

The blaze in Churchill was one of several that prosecutors allege was started deliberately.

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