Europe Riveted by Ongoing Austrian Incest Revelations | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 30.04.2008
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Europe Riveted by Ongoing Austrian Incest Revelations

Europe looked on horrified as details continued to emerge in the shocking case of an Austrian man who locked up his daughter in a cellar for years and fathered seven children with her.

The outside view of the house where 73-year-old Josef F kept his daughter in the cellar for 24 years.

Austrian press have dubbed Fritzl's home the 'house of horrors'

The children involved in a horrifying case of incest and abuse in Austria are expected to get new identities, officials there said, after DNA tests proved that 73 year old engineer Josef Fritzl had fathered the children with his 42 year old daughter, Elisabeth.

Three of the children lived upstairs with Fritzl and his wife, 69 year old Rosemarie, while three lived locked underground in a tiny cell with their captive mother. One child had died.

"Astonishing" reunion

Austrian authorities said on Tuesday, April 29 that members of the family terrorized by decades of incest and imprisonment had an “astonishing” reunion at a clinic, where psychiatrists are helping them cope.

Hospital officials said most of the seven children Fritzl fathered over the past 24 years with the daughter he held captive in a windowless cell spent their first moments together Sunday, April 27 -- a day after those kept confined finally gained their freedom.

Outside view of the Regional clinic Mostviertel in Amstetten-Mauer, Austria, on Monday, April 28, 2008 where 42-year-old Elisabeth Fritzl and three of her six children are being treated.

The case is a challenge for the Mostviertel mental clinic

Clinic director Berthold Kepplinger told reporters Tuesday the meeting also reunited the suspect's wife with the daughter Fritzl had led her to believe left home to join a religious cult, but instead was imprisoned in a cramped warren of secured and soundproofed cellar rooms.

Fritzl was remanded to court custody on Tuesday. Meanwhile, investigators are looking into suspicions that Fritzl may have had help in caring for and keeping secret the presence of a family living hidden in his basement.

Report claims son had cellar key

A report by the women’s magazine Brigitte has uncovered a claim that Fritzl’s son and Elisabeth’s brother, Thomas, had a key to the cellar. A couple who rented an upstairs room in the house, in the Austrian town of Amstetten, said that Thomas called himself the house “superintendent” and made regular trips to the cellar to get things for minor repairs.

The couple said they themselves were not allowed near the cellar, and were not allowed to rent a cellar storage room, although that his common practice in Austria.

Police are also taking into account the fact that Fritzl had made several trips to Thailand, and are looking into how the captive family may have gotten food and other goods while he was away.

A photo taken by a forensic team and released by the shows a view into the hidden room where Elisabeth was held

Investigators uncovered tiny hideaway

Authorities have also raised the question of who may have helped the man build a cellar that includes a 300 kilogram steel and cement door. Fritzl was given permission to build the cellar as a bomb shelter in the late 1970s.

Since the case came to light, Fritzl’s 42 year old daughter, Elisabeth, and her children have been carefully shielded from public glare, undergoing psychiatric counselling to help them try to adjust after their unimaginable ordeal.

Cult cover-story for adoptive "grandkids"

Fritzl had told his wife that their daughter had run away to join a cult. In reality she was locked underground in the 60 square meter (650 square feet) underground rooms.

Mother and daughter were reunited this week for the first time in a quarter century.

Fritzl explained the presence of three of the grandchildren whom he adopted to his wife and to the community by claiming Elisabeth had given birth to them at the cult, and then delivered them to his doorstep for the older couple to care for.

Three other children – aged 19, 18 and 5 -- lived belowground with their mother in the cell. They first saw daylight when they were rescued.

Daughter's illness leads to family's release

One child, a twin, had died shortly after birth. Fritzl has admitted to burning the corpse in the house’s boiler.

The decision on which children lived aboveground and which below depended on whether they were “screaming babies” and on their general halth, explained Chief Inspector Leopold Etz from the Lower Austrian criminal investigators office.

Inzest Fall Österreich Wohnung im Keller 2.jpg A photo taken by a forensic team and released by the Austrian police with permission of Austria's prosecution office on Monday, April 28, 2008 shows a view into a hidden room in a house in Amstetten, Austria, in which a woman is believed to have been held captive for 24 years.

A bathroom in the shocking home-prison

The case came to light because one of the children, 19 year old Kerstin, was severely ill. Her “grandfather” brought the child to the hospital, which started a search for the child’s mother in the hopes of finding out her medical history. They televised an urgent call Elisabeth to come back and save the daughter’s life.

Elisabeth saw the call on television, and was able to convince her father to let her go to the hospital. She seized the chance to speak privately to a doctor and explain her situation. Fritzl was arrested the same day.

Fritzl’s admission that he burned the body of the dead seventh child could prove pivotal when the case comes to trial, with a prosecutor saying he would face a life sentence if found

guilty of manslaughter, as opposed to shorter prison terms for rape or incarceration.

Psychologist Paulus Hochgatterer, who is helping advise those counselling the family, told AFP news service that the three children Fritzl had kept underground are staying in a sequestered treatment container that could be locked from the inside.

Slow road to recovery?

Safely shielded from the media circus that has set up camp in Amstetten, he said their initial treatment could take several weeks.

"Only very gradually are they being exposed to the outside world," Hochgatterer said, adding that "given the circumstances, they're actually doing quite well."

The two sets of children are now tentatively beginning to get to know one another. The youngest child, five years old, seems most able to adapt to his new life, his caretakers said.

Experts said the family is likely to need years of therapy.

"It could take between five and eight years," said Max Friedrich, the psychiatrist who looked after another sequestration victim, Natascha Kampusch, in an interview with the daily Oesterreich.

The head of the local social services, Hans-Heinz Lenze, said a name-change had been suggested for the immediate victims, but Fritzl's other family as well, in order to give them a new start in life.

Long-term investigation expected

"At the moment, all possibilities are being sounded out in closest consultation with the family. But a decision will only be reached in the coming weeks," Lenze told a news conference on Tuesday.

Austrian kidnapping victim Natascha Kampusch went public with her story of being held captive in a cellar

Can officials look to the Kampusch case for help?

Chief investigator Franz Polzer told Austrian television that police might need "half a year" to complete their investigations. He ruled out any suggestion Fritzl might have had an accomplice.

"As our investigations now stand, there were no accomplices. But you can never be 100 percent certain."

Doctors would determine when police would be allowed to question Elisabeth Fritzl and the children, but that was unlikely to be for several days.

Fritzl had officially adopted the three aboveground children, after showing authorities letters signed by Elizabeth that said she could not care for them, and which asked that they try not to track her down for the sake of herself and her children.

Fritzl was allowed to adopt despite a reported conviction of attempted rape in the 1960s and of arson, but the records were wiped after a period of time set by Austrian law.

The district court in Amstetten, which had greenlighted the adoptions, said it had followed protocol in the adoption proceedings and had had acted correctly.

No sign of wife's complicity

"There weren't any doubts about his (Fritzl's) integrity. Why should I put the child in a foster home, when it could grow up in a family," court president Josef Schoegl told the Austria Press Agency.

Chief police investigator Franz Polzer said there was no sign that Fritzl's wife, who also had seven children with him, knew of the goings on in his locked dungeon.

In the town of Amstetten, more than 200 people including dozens of youngsters quietly held a candlelight vigil in the main square late Tuesday, as the town of 23,000 sought to cast off the notoriety brought to their doorstep by Fritzl.

Shocked residents react

"Shock, sadness, rage and perhaps also hatred have gripped us these last few days," pastor Peter Boesendorfer told those gathered.

"We must acknowledge that there is something in our town that we cannot comprehend," he said, calling on residents "to help and show solidarity so that a life will be possible" for the bewildered children and their scarred mother.

Amstetten mayor Herbert Katzengruber told the Austrian news agency APA: "We want to show that Amstetten is not a town for criminals. But it's mostly about showing solidarity and help to the victims."

Residents have repeatedly insisted they saw nothing amiss before the horror story was made public on Sunday.

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