Cellar victim to testify against father

Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman who was held hostage in a cellar by her father for 24 years, has begun to tell her story to prosecutors, in the run-up to a trial in the worst recorded case of incest and imprisonment.

At a preliminary session with investigators on Friday, Elisabeth (42) was taken to a secret location and shown the rooms where the intense interviewing sessions are to take place over several days or weeks. The questioning is due to begin in earnest on Monday. Her evidence will be videotaped and played during the trial so that she will not have to face her father in court this winter.

Elisabeth had earlier backed out of an attempt to question her. She had been told that her father, Josef (74), would be able to watch the sessions via a video link from his St Pölten prison cell and that he would be allowed to pose questions directly to her. She told investigators she was not ready to face him.

But Fritzl’s lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, has since declared that his client would waive his right to be present during the questioning, although he still has the chance to change his mind.

As Elisabeth recalls the years during which she was allegedly sexually abused by her father, tied up, and bore seven children to him without any medical attention, psychologists will be on hand and can insist that the interviewing is broken off at any time.

Elisabeth will be interviewed by Andrea Hummer, the young Judge who will preside over the case and who is an expert in sexual crimes. In a neighbouring room, the interview will be watched by state prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser and Fritzl’s lawyer, both of whom will be able to pose questions to Elisabeth via Hummer. The scenario is one usually reserved for child victims of sexual abuse to protect them from further trauma.

”The questioning will take place according to the state of mind of the witness,” Gerhard Sedlacek, spokesperson for the state prosecution service of St Pölten told Der Spiegel. ”We waited until she was healthy enough to give evidence before beginning.”

The children
At the end of the month, her oldest children, Stefan (18) and Kerstin (19) — who emerged from an artificially induced coma to the amazement of medical staff and her family last month — are also due to give evidence. They, along with Felix, five, were imprisoned with their mother in the cellar.

Three other children — Lisa (15), Monika (14) and Alexander (12) — whom Fritzl claimed his daughter had dropped on the family doorstep, asking him and his wife, Rosemarie, to take care of them, were brought up upstairs.

As the two parts of the family, who are living in a flat at a psychiatric clinic near their hometown of Amstetten, seek to build a new life together, it has been revealed that hospital staff have been regularly disguising the children and smuggling them past waiting photographers to take them on secret trips to learn about ordinary life and social interaction.

Lisa (15) was even sent to a camp run by the fire brigade for the region’s youth after she wrote in May to Amstetten’s fire chief Armin Blutsch, expressing her ”deepest wish” to attend. Her name was changed to protect her identity, and she mixed with 4 000 children over four days and was able to meet school friends for the first time since the case came to light three months ago.

There are unconfirmed reports that Alexander was also sent to the camp. There have been trips to zoos and leisure parks, also following requests by the children. Felix, meanwhile, is being taught to swim in the clinic’s pool. ”Fortunately, everything is going very well,” said Christoph Herbst, the family’s lawyer.

Part of the children’s day is taken up with answering letters from the hundreds of well-wishers from around the world. Otherwise, the family has been enjoying walks in the hospital grounds and learning, above all, to be patient with each other.

Psychologists say that one of the greatest challenges has been for the ”upstairs” children to accept the slowness of the ”downstairs” children, whose lives revolved around a few books and a television set, and were played out in a tiny space devoid of artificial light or fresh air. The ”downstairs” children continue to be startled by seemingly mundane events such as a moving cloud or a chirping bird.

For now, the focus is on the investigation. The key decision that must be made is what Fritzl, who has confessed to imprisoning Elisabeth and having children with her, can be charged with. A neonatologist is seeking to determine whether Fritzl can be charged with murder after DNA tests confirmed he was the father of a twin who died shortly after birth and whose body he allegedly threw into a furnace.

”It will be difficult to bring a murder charge,” Sedlacek admitted. ”But we’ll leave no possibility unturned.”

If he is found guilty of murder along with kidnapping and rape, Fritzl faces life in prison. Without a murder conviction, he faces 10 to 15 years in jail, which, it is believed, would create a national and international outcry. — guardian.co.uk

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