Page last updated at 19:26 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

Bringing the cellar to life in court

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, St Poelten

Josef Fritzl, his face partially hidden by a folder, attends his trial, 16 March
Cameras were only allowed to record the opening statements

The court room in St Poelten is a light airy place, with wood panelling and a high, painted ceiling.

It is a far cry from the cramped damp conditions in the cellar in Ybbsstrasse in Amstetten where the Fritzl family lived.

I was one of around 100 journalists allowed into court. Many of us there had covered this case since it came to light almost a year ago.

But apart from brief glimpses of Josef Fritzl photographed through car windows, few of us had seen him in person.

Flanked by policemen, and an Austrian camera crew, his entrance into court was dramatic and strange.

His face was buried in a blue legal folder, which he held up - to hide from the cameras.

For several minutes, one of the Austrian journalists tried to ask him questions. But there was no response from Mr Fritzl. All that could be heard was the clicking of cameras.

The sense of tension was palpable.

Breaking the spell

Behind him, Mr Fritzl's lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, made notes, peering down through his gold reading glasses.

Have you ever wondered what it was like in the cellar?
Christiane Burkheiser
prosecutor, addressing jury

The spell was finally broken when the jury and the judges came into court.

Only when the cameras had left did Mr Fritzl remove the folder from his face.

He answered the judge's questions in a composed manner: his name, age and the name of his parents, Maria and Josef.

Once the jury was sworn in, the state prosecutor, Christiane Burkheiser, made her opening speech.

"Have you ever wondered what it was like in the cellar?" she asked.

Leaning over into the jury box, she went on to describe the damp, the water which streamed down the walls. At one point she handed out a cardboard box containing items belonging to the family in the cellar.

Smell them, she told the jury. That is what it was like down there.

She said Josef Fritzl had raped his daughter repeatedly - sometimes in front of their children.

He looks like a nice old man from next door, she said, but he has shown no sign of remorse.

'Fatherly concern'

Speaking for the defence, Rudolf Mayor appealed to the jury to see his client as a human being not as a monster.

Josef Fritzl's secret cellar, police photo April 2008
Josef Fritzl maintained his secret cellar for 24 years

He said his client had shown concern for his children by taking them out of the cellar when they were sick. He asked the jury to put their emotions aside as they listened to the case.

The judge then read out the charges and asked Mr Fritzl to plead guilty or not guilty.

He admitted the charges of incest, coercion, deprivation of liberty and some of the charges of sexual abuse. But he said he was not guilty of the charges that carry the longest sentences: murder and enslavement.

The judge then began to question Josef Fritzl again about his youth and career. He spoke a little about his difficult relationship with his mother.

We had been in court for less than two hours when the judge decided that journalists and members of the public should leave.

Over the next couple of days the jury will be watching the videotaped testimony of Josef Fritzl's daughter.

It is likely to be a harrowing account.

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