Austrian to appear in court over abuse case

A 73-year-old Austrian who has confessed to locking his daughter in a windowless cellar for 24 years and fathering her seven children will appear before a judge on Tuesday.

Investigators were searching the 60 square metre cellar beneath electrical engineer Josef Fritzl’s two-storey home, Franz Prucher, head of security in Lower Austria said.

”Down there it is just chaos at the moment. We have to go over every detail very carefully,” Prucher told Reuters by telephone.

Fritzl appeared before a district court on Monday night which referred him to a judge in St Poelten, the provincial capital of Lower Austria, to decide on his detention.

Guenther Moerwald, head of St Poelten prison, said Fritzl had been calm when he arrived on Monday and had been put in a larger, two person cell to try to avoid a suicide attempt.

Fritzl is expected to be put in investigative custody for 14 days. After this period, a further hearing will decide whether he can continue being detained.

Elisabeth Fritzl (42) says her father lured her into the cellar of their home in 1984 and drugged and handcuffed her before imprisoning her.

Three of her children, aged 19, 18 and five, had been locked in the cellar with her since birth and had never seen sunlight. The younger two were boys, the eldest a girl.

Three other children — two girls and one boy — were adopted and brought up by Fritzl and his wife Rosemarie.

Police said Fritzl had admitted to burning the body of a seventh child in a furnace used to heat the building when the baby died soon after birth.

Authorities are still waiting for results of DNA tests to prove Fritzl is the father of the children.

‘Self-satisfied society’

Authorities have been asking how events in the house, situated in a busy street with shops in the small industrial town of Amstetten, 130km west of Vienna, passed unnoticed for so long.

Commentator Petra Stuiber wrote in Austrian daily Der Standard that what she termed a rich, self-satisfied society needed to examine why it was allowed to occur.

”How is it possible that nobody heard or saw anything? How can it be that nobody asked questions?” said Stuiber.

The local children’s welfare office has come in for particular scrutiny.

A local official told daily Oesterreich that while juvenile welfare officials had been in touch with the children, Fritzl and his wife were never checked.

Family members are scrutinised less closely than outsiders when it comes to adoptions, Sonja Pospisil from the Vienna office for adoption and fostering told daily die Presse.

”The law favours relatives. It was intended to be that way.”

The case has shocked Austria, less than two years after an Austrian teenager, Natascha Kampusch, escaped from the basement where she had been locked up by an abductor for eight years.

Fritzl kept his daughter and three of the children in a complex which was in some places no more than 1,7m high and contained a padded cell, according to authorities.

Photographs of the cellar show a narrow passageway leading into other rooms that included a cooking area, with children’s drawings on the walls, a sleeping area and a small bathroom with a shower.

Fritzl had hidden the entrance to the cell behind shelves and only he knew the code for the concrete door.

The case unfolded when the 19-year-old girl became seriously ill and was taken to hospital with severe cramp caused by lack of oxygen. Doctors appealed for her mother to come forward to give details of her medical history.

Fritzl brought Elisabeth and her remaining two children out of the cellar, telling his wife their ”missing” daughter had chosen to return home, police said.

Elisabeth agreed to make a thorough statement to the police after receiving assurances she would have no further contact with her father, who she said abused her from the age of 11.

Police believe Josef’s wife did not know what happened to her daughter when she disappeared in 1984.

Fritzl had said Elisabeth had joined a sect and that she had left three of the children on the doorstep. He forced Elisabeth to write letters by hand to prove his claims, said the police. – Reuters

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