Hostel arsonist's prison term 'inadequate'

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The Independent Online

Queensland's state government said yesterday that it would appeal against the "inadequate" 20-year prison sentence given to Robert Long, the itinerant fruit-picker who was convicted of starting a fire in a hostel that killed 15 young travellers.

Long was sentenced on Monday in Brisbane Supreme Court to life imprisonment for two counts of murder and 15 years for arson, with the terms to be served concurrently. Justice Peter Dutney – who described Long's action as "arson of the worst kind" – said the 38-year-old could be considered for parole after serving 20 years.

But the Queensland Attorney-General, Rod Welford, called the sentence "manifestly inadequate", blaming it on the agreement by prosecutors for Long to be charged with only two of the deaths to speed court proceedings.

He said the judge had been wrong not to take into account the deaths of 13 other travellers in the blaze at the Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers, Queensland on 23 June 2000.

On Friday a jury found Long guilty of starting the fire and of the murder of the Australian twins Kelly and Stacey Slarke. The two deaths were sufficient for the maximum sentence.

The fire also killed seven backpackers from Britain, two Dutch, another Australian, one Irish, one South Korean and one Japanese.

The backpackers who died had gone to Childers – a small farming community 190 miles north of Brisbane, the state capital – to earn money to fund their travels by picking fruit and vegetables in the fertile farmlands that surround the town.

At the trial the jury, which deliberated for nearly two days, heard evidence from more than 60 witnesses, including survivors who flew in from Britain, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Arson experts testified during the 19-day trial that the fire was started in the television lounge and spread to the first floor within 10 minutes.

Eight people died in one room because the sole exit was blocked by flames. Survivors squeezed through barred windows and crawled along smoke-filled corridors; many clambered on to neighbouring rooftops to escape.

Childers, a close-knit community, was devastated by the tragedy. Work has recently begun on demolishing the hostel, which will be replaced by a building that will include an information centre, art gallery and memorial.