Fritzl hides his face after years of brutal domination

Tue, Mar 17, 2009, 00:00

FOR DECADES, Josef Fritzl dominated his Austrian family and preyed on his daughter Elisabeth in a secret dungeon under their home.

It was a defeated man who shuffled into court yesterday, flanked by three armed guards, to answer to crimes of rape, enslavement and murder.

With a scraggy comb-over and a grey check jacket hanging from his gaunt frame, Fritzl hid his face behind a quivering blue binder.

For 15 agonising minutes before proceedings began, he ignored the questions of a crestfallen Austrian television journalist. A final, desperate attempt to bait him: “If you had your time again, would you do things the same again?”

No answer.

Then 12 jurors, six men and six women, filed into the court. When the cameras left and the binder came down, they saw a wan-faced man, still with insinuating eyebrows and a bushy moustache.

In the wood-panelled court 119 in St Pölten, 65km (40 miles) from Vienna, judge Andrea Humer delivered a stern warning to the media gallery. “This is the trial of an individual,” she said, behind a crucifix and two unlit candles, “not the crime of a place or a region.”

Asked by Humer to confirm his personal details, Fritzl gave gruff, one-word replies in a baritone voice more used to giving orders than answering questions.

Then state prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser launched her attack.

“He treated her like a plaything. He came, used her and left,” she said. “And you know what troubles me the most? He has shown not one sign of regret.”

The rape of Elisabeth Fritzl began on day two of her imprisonment in August 1984, she said. The first baby arrived four years later.

“What kind of birth did she have? Elisabeth had a dirty scissors, unsanitary blankets in which to wrap her baby, and a book on delivering babies given to her two months earlier.”

The monotony of rape continued in front of her growing brood of young children.

Twice the state prosecutor visited the cellar under the Fritzl home in the nearby town of Amstetten.“It’s morbid, creepy and desperately cold; the damp creeps into you within minutes,” said Burkheiser. “Often it got damp so quickly that water ran down the walls and Elisabeth had to soak it up with towels.”

The closest the jurors will come to the cellar is a cardboard box containing objects from the cellar that Burkheiser passed to them yesterday, asking them to open the lid and smell the damp.

Defence lawyer Rudolf Mayer said he would contest only the murder charge, calling it out of character for Fritzl. “This is someone who raised a second family,” he said. “Someone who provided school books and a tree at Christmas.”

When put to him, Fritzl accepted the charges of incest and deprivation of liberty, partially accepted the rape charge and one of two charges of serious coercion.

He pleaded not guilty to the charges of enslavement and murder. Yesterday afternoon, jurors began watching 11 hours of harrowing video testimony from the trial’s only witness, Elisabeth Fritzl.

Eight of the 12 jurors – four are reserve members – are expected to return a verdict on Friday.

Outside the courtroom, to the stirring sounds of Bruckner, protesters carried bloodstained dolls and placards reading “Shame on Austria! Children’s rights in the constitution”.