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Fritzl trial could become a farce

The shocking case of the Austrian man who locked up his daughter in a secret dungeon to rape and father an incest family with her begins Monday amid warnings of it turning into a farce.

One legal expert believes Josef Fritzl, 73, could be free in just six and-a-half years if found guilty of most of his crimes at the trial in which the media is banned from attending.

Dr. Raoul Wagner, an eminent Viennese lawyer, warned that the charges have "little chance of working to keep Fritzl in jail for life."

Fritzl faces a plethora of counts that include rape, incest, false imprisonment, slavery, coercion, deprivation of liberty and one of murder.

That relates to a baby born in the cellar in 1996. One of twins, baby Michael survived just three days. Fritzl picked up the tiny baby’s shrivelled body and burned it in the heating stove of the house.

Prosecutors say that by depriving the child of urgent medical care he was, in fact, its murderer.

Fritzl denies that charge but admits in principle to most of the others.

But Wagner says: "I am convinced that after six and a half years he will be free again. The murder charge has no chance as the body was allegedly burnt and the ashes scattered in the garden. There is no body and only Elisabeth's word over the details.

"The slavery charge has never been used since it was put on the books, and it does not really affect what happened here. He did not buy or sell his daughter in the slave trade -  and the charge does not apply.

"At the most the incest and rape charge apply, and as sentences run concurrently the most he would face would be rape - which means 7.5 years with good behaviour, which with the year already spent inside means 6.5 years he could be released.

"In a case like this the Austrian legal system is a nonsense. In America for 3,000 rapes a person would face 30,000 years in jail."

In addition the decision to ban the media and public from most of the trial is also risky, as it means there could be allegations that the trial was not properly conducted.

Constitutional expert Heinz Mayer warned: "If anyone were to raise an objection against the exclusion of the public then the whole proceedings might need to happen again."

Over the course of this week jurors will hear a tale of unparalleled horror; of 3,000 rapes, solitary childbirth in the darkness of a rat-infested cellar, beatings, humiliation and near-starvation endured by Elisabeth Fritzl.

Elisabeth was 18 in 1984 when her sexually obsessed, convicted rapist father Josef, drugged her with ether and walled her up in the clandestine grotto he carved from beneath the family home in Amstetten, Austria.

The court will hear how for the first six to nine months – Elisabeth is unsure because there was no way to measure time except in her head – she was kept chained to four poles with an iron girdle device around her middle. Fritzl only removed it in the end because it interfered with his sex sessions.

Jurors have been promised psychiatric counselling if the evidence becomes too much for them to bear.

She will tell via videoed testimony – she never wants to set eyes on her tormentor again – how he began abusing her when she was just 11, leaving pornographic magazines in her room and masturbating in front of her.

This was the precursor to the hell of the cellar where he would rape her for hours on end, often in front of the children she bore him.

Other evidence includes the findings of psychiatrists about Fritzl’s state of mind, the health of the six cellar children, from police, from buildings experts speaking about the cellar’s construction and from paediatricians.

Also during the course of the trial Austrian bureaucracy will have to give its version of events: why a convicted sex offender got away with his crimes for so long.

Fritzl removed three of the cellar babies to live upstairs with him and his wife Rosemarie. His charade included "dumping" them on the doorstep with notes Elisabeth wrote under duress claiming she had joined a cult and couldn’t cope with bringing the babies up.

Social workers will have to answer why they entered his home – a house of fear, by all accounts, where his family dreaded his presence – 21 times and were never suspicious about him.

Still haunted by their failures, the public administration of Amstetten – the mayor and senior civil servants – have all gone on vacation during the trial to avoid the world’s media that has once again descended on Austria.

Fritzl will be led the 300 yards from his jail cell at 8.30 am UK time today MON into the wood-panelled courtroom in St. Poelten for the start of proceedings.

He will seek to mitigate his horror by saying he incarcerated his daughter to save her from a life of drink, drugs and debauchery, that he loved her in his own way and was "merciful" to the children.

But his own children by his marriage to Rosemarie have turned against him too: His son Harald is expected to testify that all feared him and endured beatings and abuse throughout their upbringing.

Elisabeth, who has fallen out with her mother because she took her father back after he served a sentence for raping a woman in 1967, has moved back into a psychiatric clinic with her six children for the duration of the trial. She fears an invasion of reporters to the home she now lives in.

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