Austria eager to turn the page on Fritzl

21st March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Fritzl’s case, which came to light last April, has reviled the whole world and left Austria asking itself how it could have failed to detect such a monstrous crime for so long.

Vienna -- Austria was eager Friday to turn the page on the world's most shocking incest case in recent years following Josef Fritzl's conviction and life sentence for murder and rape.

Fritzl was sentenced to life in a mental institute after he was found guilty of holding his daughter Elisabeth as a sex slave in a cramped windowless dungeon for 24 years, raping her thousands of times, fathering seven children with her and letting one of the new-born babies die.

The case, which came to light last April, has reviled the whole world and left Austria asking itself how it could have failed to detect such a monstrous crime for so long.

On Friday, the national newspapers hailed the sentence as the only possible punishment for the retired electrician, who turns 74 on April 9.

"The Sentence: Life!" rejoiced the country's biggest-selling daily, Kronen Zeitung, on its front page. "Life For the 24 Years He Spent as a Monster!"

Another mass circulation daily, Oesterreich, trumpeted "Jail Until He Dies" while the headline of Heute read "Life for Fritzl -- That's The Way," along with a picture of Hieronymous Bosch's painting The Last Judgement.

In Fritzl's home town of Amstetten, mayor Herbert Katzengruber said the sentence "is what we had hoped. A dark chapter of our town's history has finally been closed.”

Amstetten, a small, nondescript town 100 kilometres (62 miles) west of Vienna, was overrun by national and foreign media after the story broke last April and was besieged again by TV cameras and news reporters in the run-up to this week's trial.

It was there, in a cramped, damp and under-ventilated cellar beneath the family home, that Elisabeth was incarcerated for nearly a quarter of a century.

The trial itself, which started Monday and ended Thursday, was held in the regional capital of Sankt Poelten, 60 kilometres away.

The people of Amstetten now "want to be left in peace," said Katzengruber. Once the media has left, the town can move on, he said.

"I hope they will leave us alone soon," an elderly woman said as she passed Fritzl's house where journalists were camped out on the day of the verdict.

But others were less optimistic.

"It's not going to be over for a long time,” one Amstetten resident could be overheard commenting on Thursday. “I think it's only just starting. There will be bus tours to Fritzl's house, and we will then all make pilgrimages to Mauer."

The Amstetten-Mauer clinic, where Elisabeth Fritzl and her children spent their first months of freedom, was long surrounded by photographers and paparazzi, desperate to get a first picture of the cellar family.

Many foreign newspapers painted Austria in a harsh light after the Fritzl cellar case broke, just two years after the story of Natascha Kampusch, who had escaped her kidnapper after eight years locked in a dungeon.

Links were even made to the small alpine state's Nazi past.

Possibly for this reason, Judge Andrea Humer declared at the start of Fritzl's trial on Monday: "He acted alone ... We are not prosecuting a town or an entire country."

While Amstetten will likely forever be linked with the name of Fritzl and his abominable crime, Sankt Poelten went all out to ensure its name will not be similarly tainted, organising a reception with the mayor and a guided tour of the city for the hundreds of journalists who had come to cover the event.

Court spokesman Franz Cutka even appealed at his last press conference: "Keep good memories of Sankt Poelten."

Since Elisabeth and the children have been shielded from public view ever since their dramatic release last year and given new identities to help them rebuild their lives, it can only be speculated what they feel about the sentence.

Fritzl himself seemed to be "somewhat relieved" that his trial is finally over, said Erich Huber-Guensthofer, deputy director of Sankt Poelten prison, where the convicted murderer is currently awaiting transfer to a special facility for mentally abnormal offenders.

He "got through" his first night as a convicted murderer "fairly well," Huber-Guensthofer said, noting that the prisoner was on suicide watch and was being looked after by a psychiatrist.

Such a sentence was "naturally a burden" for Fritzl, Huber-Guensthofer added.

But he was being monitored more closely as part of the usual suicide prevention measures at the prison.

Sim Sim Wissgott/AFP

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