Briton changes plea in petrol attack case

A BRITON who admitted dousing his ex-girlfriend in petrol and setting her alight while in Australia withdrew his plea of guilt yesterday.

Stephen Rae, 33, from Crieff, Perthshire, was due to be sentenced for the attack in Sydney on Gabriella Mazzali, from Lincolnshire. But he called for a re-trial and for his guilty plea to be overturned. If a new trial is held then Ms Mazzali, 29, who suffered 90 per cent burns in the incident in February 1998, will have to relive her ordeal and give evidence. Ms Mazzali, who now lives in north London, flew to Sydney in October to give evidence against her ex-lover. At the trial the court was told how Rae, a former teacher, broke into Ms Mazzali's flat and set her alight after she broke off their relationship.

Rae agreed a plea-bargain deal in which the prosecution dropped a charge of attempted murder when he pleaded guilty to maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm with intent to murder - an offence with a maximum jail term of 25 years. At the time, she said: "I am absolutely elated by the fact that he has decided to plead guilty because it indicates that he is now accepting responsibility."

But 22 months into the case Rae is claiming he was pressured by his barrister at the time into making the deal. At a court in Sydney yesterday Rae won the right to a hearing before a judge to decide whether the original plea should stand. If he is successful at the hearing, which is being held today, a new trial is likely next year.