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Sister-in-law reveals Fritzl inflicted years of sadistic humiliation on wife

The Austrian rapist who imprisoned his daughter in his cellar for 24 years and fathered her seven children was a despot in the "normal" home he kept upstairs. He took sadistic pleasure in humiliating his wife with whom "he hadn't had sex for years", one of his relatives revealed yesterday.

Christine R is the sister -in-law of Josef Fritzl, the self-confessed rapist whose daughter and three children were released from their windowless bunker a week ago. She is the first member of his family to speak about Austria's worst recorded rape and incest case.

In an interview published by the newspaper Österreich, Christine R described the tyrannical manner in which Fritzl treated his68-year-old wife, Rosemarie, the seven children he had with her and the three from his incestuous relationship, whom he "adopted" and allowed to live upstairs.

At home, Fritzl, 73, was referred to as "Sepp", the Austrian abbreviation for Josef. Christine R referred in scathing terms to his marriage with her sister. "When Rosemarie married Sepp, she was 17 and had never had a job or learned a trade," she said. "He took advantage of that during all their 51-year marriage."

She said gatherings of the Fritzl family took place every year in rooms which, unknown to her, were only a few feet above the underground bunker where Elisabeth Fritzl and three of her children were being held prisoner. Fritzl apparently took pleasure in humiliating his wife in front of the other family members.

"He was relaxed and sociable with everyone in the family apart from Rosi," Christine R said. "He used to tell her off in front of the others. The worst things were his crude, dirty jokes, which he used to laugh loudly about. This was embarrassing for everyone, because we all knew they hadn't had sex with each other for years," she added.

Mrs R also described the atmosphere in the Fritzl household at 40 Ybbstrasse, in the provincial Lower Austrian town of Amstetten. "He drilled the children. Whenever he came into the room, they all fell silent – even if they had just been playing. You could feel their constant fear of punishment," she said. "The only way these children could escape that climate was through marriage and, as soon as they were old enough, that's exactly what they did," she added.

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Mrs R confirmed reports that Fritzl had served a prison term in the Sixties for raping a woman in the town of Linz. Austrian police said the case is not relevant because it happened more than 15 years ago and that Fritzl's criminal record had since been expunged. However, Mrs R recalled: "I was just 16 when he was locked up for rape and I found his crime simply disgusting. At that time he already had four children with my sister. He was a despot and I hated him."

Beneath the rooms Mrs R saw at family events, Elisabeth was held captive in a windowless dungeon that Rosemarie Fritzl was forbidden to enter. "Every morning at nine, Sepp went down into his cellar, apparently to complete technical drawings of machines which he had sold to companies. Sometimes he stayed down there all night," she said. "Rosi wasn't even allowed to bring him a cup of coffee."

There is speculation that Fritzl might have had an accomplice, or at least somebody who knew what was really taking place. Alfred Dubanovsky, a lodger who rented a room in the house for 12 years, revealed yesterday that he had been introduced to another man who went into the cellar, who Fritzl claimed was a plumber. He said he often heard sounds coming from the cellar, but assumed that it was the central heating system making a noise.

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