SANKT POELTEN, Mar 16 – Josef Fritzl used his daughter as a "toy", an Austrian court heard on Monday after the 73-year-old admitted imprisoning her in an underground bunker for 24 years and forcing her to bear seven children.,
But the Austrian engineer, who set up a house of horror with electrically controlled doors to stop Elisabeth Fritzl and her children from escaping, denied slavery and a murder charge over the death of one of the incest babies.
The white-haired Fritzl, dressed in a grey suit, entered the court shielding his face with with a blue document which he kept in place until the hearing started.
He later told the court that he had had a "very difficult childhood."
Police sat on either side of Fritzl and others stood in front of the public gallery as maximum security was imposed for the week of hearings. Several protesters were outside the court house, some carrying baby dolls smeared in fake blood.
It was Fritzl’s first appearance in public since the shocking case broke on April 26 last year after the eldest child, Kerstin, 19, who had lived her entire life underground with two brothers and her mother, fell severely ill and had to be hospitalised.
In her opening statement, chief prosecutor Christiane Burkhauser described Fritzl’s crimes as "inconceivable."
He "showed no sign of regret or any consciousness of wrongdoing," she said.
"Josef Fritzl treated his daughter as his property, he made her completely dependent," Burkheiser added.
"He decided what kind of food was brought into the dungeon. He decided when food was brought. And food was also often scarce."
"He used her as a toy," said the prosecutor, referring to the repeated rapes.
Fritzl admitted rape, incest, sequestration and grievous assault for keeping Elisabeth as captive for a quarter of a century and fathering her seven children, replying with a simple "yes" to the question as to whether he pleaded guilty.
He faces a prison term of up to 15 years on these charges.
But he lodged a plea of "not guilty" to a murder charge which carries a life sentence. Prosecutors accuse him of having failed to seek medical aid for one of the babies who died just after birth in 1996.
Fritzl told police the baby was still-born and he burnt the body in a boiler in the cellar.
Fritzl likewise pleaded not guilty to a charge of slavery as the trial started in Sankt Poelten, some 60 kilometres from Amstetten, where the family lived. It is the first time such a charge has been brought in Austria .
Elisabeth Fritzl, now 42, was first locked in her dungeon on August 29, 1984.
"I went down there twice and there’s a morbid atmosphere," said Burkheiser.
"It’s damp, it’s musty, it’s mouldy."
The cellar, gradually expanded to 40 square metres, had no heating, no hot water, no fresh air or sunlight.
In the narrow space, Elisabeth gave birth to seven babies without any outside help. Three of these children were brought to live with Fritzl and his wife, who maintains she never knew of her daughter’s ordeal.
The three others spent their entire lives in the cellar. A seventh, a twin, apparently died shortly after birth.
"He failed to seek any help" despite his daughter’s pleas, when the baby developed breathing problems, Burkheiser said.
"That my dear jurors, is murder by negligence."
Fritzl, for his part, told the court that he had had "a very hard childhood".
""My mother didn’t want me. She was 42 when she had me," Fritzl said in a trembling voice.
"She simply didn’t want a child and she treated me correspondingly. I was beaten," he said.
Elisabeth and her children have recorded 13 hours of videotaped testimony which was to be played at the hearings, most of which will be held behind closed doors with no media or public present.
Authorities are trying to organise a new life for the woman and her children under a new identity. She has returned to a special clinic for the duration of the trial to avoid any possibility of publicity.