Wed, Mar 18, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Long-awaited trial of incest father Josef Fritzl begins


She pulled back the lid of the brown cardboard box, and invited the jurors to take a sniff at the objects inside. It was, said Christiane Burkheiser, a chance for the jury to experience for themselves the rancid stink that pervaded every inch of the underground prison beneath the family home in Amstetten, west of Vienna, where Josef Fritzl held his daughter for 24 years and allegedly raped her repeatedly.

It was one of the more dramatic moments of the opening on Monday of the long-awaited trial of the Austrian electrical engineer. No one in the public gallery could see what was in the box — children’s toys, books, clothing perhaps — but the crumpled looks on the jurors’ faces left little to the imagination.

The state prosecutor had felt the full impact of the cellar prison when she visited it herself.

“I’ve seen the cellar dungeon twice,” Burkheiser said. “It has a morbid atmosphere, which starts with having to crawl in on your hands and knees through the 83cm entranceway. And it’s sinister. It’s really bad. It’s incredibly damp, a damp that creeps into you after just a few minutes,” she said.

Fritzl sat listening impassively on a suede-upholstered chair, wearing grey trousers and a black-and-white check jacket that was slightly too large for him.

Minutes earlier he had shuffled into the St Polten district court, flanked by six police officers and clutching tightly at a royal blue folder to shield his face from the clicking cameras.

The 73-year-old looked a shadow of his former self as he walked across the creaking oak floor. Gone were his healthy suntan and the confident gait shown in video footage of him on holiday or in snapshots enjoying barbecues in the garden — while his daughter, and the offspring he fathered during years of sexual abuse, languished beneath his feet.

Fritzl refused to answer the questions fired at him by two Austrian reporters.

“If you had your chance again, would you do it all the same way?” one reporter asked, provoking nervous laughter from the public gallery.

Fritzl kept his shield in place, although at times he was seen to apparently grin as his grey moustache twitched behind the folder. When he sat after cameras had been ordered from the court, he placed the file on the table in front of him and held his hands to the side of his head like blinkers.

As Burkheiser, for 25 minutes, laid out her emotional arguments in the small courtroom, sometimes using a laser pointer to indicate masking tape she had stuck to the walls of the wood-paneled courtroom to illustrate the narrowness of entrances, the low heights of ceilings that Elisabeth and her children had had to endure.

The space constraints and the damp were, she said, minor compared with the other hardships and sufferings. For years Elisabeth had had no sink, no warm water, no daylight. She had “got her air from the cracks in the walls.” Sometimes she went without light for days at a time — “no lamp, not even a torch or candles.” And there were also the repeated rapes.

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