Page last updated at 13:49 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

Fritzl admits rape, denies murder


Josef Fritzl arrives at court for his trial

Josef Fritzl, accused of imprisoning his daughter and fathering her children, has pleaded guilty to rape and incest but not guilty to murder.

The Austrian is accused of the murder by neglect of one of his daughter's children. He also denied enslavement.

TV pictures showed the 73-year-old enter the courtroom with his face concealed by a blue file. He refused to answer journalists' questions.

The trial, in the city of St Poelten, is attracting intense media interest.

[The defendant] showed no sign of regret or any consciousness of wrongdoing
Christiane Burkheiser

Mr Fritzl is alleged in 1984 to have lured his daughter into a cellar with windowless soundproofed chambers beneath their house and then raped her repeatedly.

The daughter and three of her seven children were kept captive in the cellar until the case came to light in April last year when one of the children became seriously ill and was taken to hospital.

The BBC's Steve Rosenberg, in St Poelten, says some legal experts think it might be hard to prove the murder charge.

But the charge of enslavement carries a maximum penalty of 20 years and some of the other charges against Mr Fritzl involve sentences of up to 15 years.

While convicts become eligible for parole having served half their sentence under Austrian law, there are other clauses which could prevent an eligible convict walking free if it is considered he could re-offend, our correspondent notes.

'Morbid atmosphere'

Escorted by six policemen and dressed in a light grey, checked jacket and dark grey trousers, Mr Fritzl made the short walk down the corridor from his cell to the courtroom, where journalists tried unsuccessfully to question him before the judges arrived.

A human being not a monster
Defence lawyer Rudolf Mayer describing his client

Speaking in a composed voice, Mr Fritzl gave the judges his name and other personal details.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser said Mr Fritzl had used his daughter "as a toy".

"[The defendant] showed no sign of regret or any consciousness of wrongdoing," she said, quoted by AFP news agency.

"Josef Fritzl treated his daughter as his property, he made her completely dependent."

Ms Burkheiser said he also sometimes raped her in front of their children, and described the atmosphere in the cellar.

"I went down there twice and there's a morbid atmosphere," she said. "It's damp, it's musty, it's mouldy."

'Not a monster'

The prosecutor also blamed Mr Fritzl squarely for the death of one of twin boys that his daughter gave birth to in 1996.

Josef Fritzl, his face partially hidden by a folder, attends his trial, 16 March
Murder - not guilty plea
Enslavement - not guilty plea
Deprivation of liberty - guilty plea
Rape - partially guilty plea*
Incest - guilty plea
Coercion - guilty plea

*Understood to mean he is contesting the wording of the charges

"He failed to seek any help", despite his daughter's pleas, when the baby developed breathing problems, Ms Burkheiser said.

"That my dear jurors, is murder by negligence."

But defence lawyer Rudolf Mayer said his client was "a human being not a monster" and appealed to jurors to be objective.

He said his client had shown concern for the children by removing some of them from the cellar and taking one of them to hospital.

"As a monster, I'd kill all of them downstairs," he said.

Mr Fritzl himself described his childhood to the court.

"My mother didn't want me. She was 42 when she had me," he said, quoted by AFP news agency.

"She simply didn't want a child and she treated me correspondingly. I was beaten."

In her introduction, court president Andrea Humer said she wished to emphasise that a single person was on trial, not a town or a region.

The judge asked Mr Fritzl some questions about his life and work experience, before sending the public out of the courtroom as the remaining evidence was deemed too sensitive.

Camera crews and photographers had already been told to leave.

An estimated 200 journalists are in St Poelten for the trial but fewer than 100 were allowed inside the courthouse.

An air exclusion zone has been imposed above the courthouse to prevent news crews using helicopters to get aerial shots.

Privacy protection

Mr Fritzl has been held in custody in St Poelten since his arrest nearly a year ago.

All evidence in the trial is due to be given behind closed doors out of concern for the privacy of the family.

The evidence includes hours of pre-recorded testimony given by the daughter at the centre of the case.

Edited details of the day's proceedings will then be released to the press each afternoon.

The trial is predicted to last just a week, with a verdict expected on Friday.

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