ST. POELTEN, Austria – Josef Fritzl looked into the eyes of his daughter and former prisoner yesterday for the first time since she was freed from his Austrian dungeon.
It was not, to put it mildly, a conventional family reunion. Elisabeth, his 43-year-old daughter, stared out from a giant 26 inch television set up in a darkened courtroom and spoke during eleven hours of pre-recorded testimony about a quarter of century of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Fritzl. Although Ms Fritzl was nowhere near court, shielded from paparazzi with her six children in a psychiatric clinic, her presence dominated the murder, rape, enslavement, imprisonment and incest trial against her father.
"Mr Fritzl watched the recordings with his full attention, I cannot imagine his emotional state," said court spokesman Franz Cutka. The deputy governor of the St Polten detention center confirmed yesterday however that Fritzl had been put on suicide alert. The 73-year-old building engineer had seen a psychiatrist on Monday night after hearing the charges against him in courtroom 119 in St Polten. "He [the psychiatrist] is now standing by in pauses during the court hearings," said Erich Huber-Günsthofer.
Yesterday Fritzl had to hear from the mouth of his daughter, and it cannot have made for a pleasant day for a man who never tolerated back-chat in his family of 12 children. As one commentator put it: "Elisabeth has returned as an avenging angel."
Reporters were banned from the court room, to protect the privacy of Elisabeth, but Fritzl sat in the dock, with the three judges, eight jurors, the state prosecutor and the defence team. As Ms Fritzl recounted her litany of humiliations, the tape was stopped and Fritzl was cross-questioned. The main aim of the proceedings was to address the most serious charge against Fritzl, that of murdering one of the seven babies fathered in the mouldy fetid cellar of his sprawling house in Amstetten.
A doctor specialising in neo-natal medicine presented his analysis of the final hours of Michael, a twin born on April 28 1996. The court wanted to establish whether — as alleged in the indictment — the baby died of an infection which led to respiratory distress.