- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ST. POELTEN, Austria | An Austrian man accused of locking his daughter in a basement for 24 years and fathering her seven children pleaded guilty to incest but insisted he was not guilty of murder and enslavement charges as his trial opened Monday.

Josef Fritzl wore a mismatched suit and hid his face behind a blue file folder as a judge began the proceedings under heavy security in St. Poelten, 40 miles west of Vienna.

Mr. Fritzl, 73, faces up to life in prison if convicted of murder. Incest, by contrast, is punishable by up to one year in prison. A verdict is possible as early as Thursday in a case that has drawn worldwide media attention.

Mr. Fritzl pleaded guilty Monday to incest and false imprisonment, but only partially guilty to charges of coercion and rape. He pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide and enslavement.

Mr. Fritzl spoke in an almost inaudible voice as he gave the judge his name and other personal details. His voice breaking, Mr. Fritzl briefly recalled his childhood and said life with his mother was “very difficult.” Asked whether he had friends, he said simply: “No.”

Authorities say Mr. Fritzl imprisoned and repeatedly raped his daughter, Elisabeth, for 24 years in a cramped and windowless dungeon he built beneath the family’s home in the western town of Amstetten. Investigators say DNA tests show he fathered her six surviving children.

Another child died in infancy, and that prompted the murder charge. Prosecutors contend the baby boy might have survived if Mr. Fritzl had arranged for medical care.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser accused Mr. Fritzl of repeatedly raping his daughter in front of the children and said the ailing newborn Mr. Fritzl failed to save died 2 1/2 days after it was born.

Three of the children grew up underground in Amstetten, never seeing daylight. The other three were brought upstairs to be raised by Mr. Fritzl and his wife, Rosemarie, who apparently believed they had been abandoned.

Defense attorney Rudolf Mayer appealed to the jury to be objective and insisted Mr. Fritzl was “not a monster,” saying his client even brought a Christmas tree down to his captives, whom he considered a second family.

Security was tight Monday in St. Poelten. Police imposed a no-fly zone above the courthouse to dissuade reporters from renting helicopters for aerial shots - and to prevent prison breaks from the jail next door where Mr. Fritzl has been in pretrial detention.

Mr. Mayer welcomed the security, saying both he and Mr. Fritzl had received threats.

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