The Natascha Kampusch scandal shocked the world; now another case of long-term child abuse has emerged. Are the police letting the nation down?
It was late August 2006, and Austria's biggest missing persons case had miraculously been resolved. Eight years previously Natascha Kampusch, a girl of 10, had disappeared one day on her way to school. Despite an extensive media campaign to find her, and sightings of a girl who fitted Natascha's description getting into a white van, there had been no sign of Kampusch for years and she was presumed dead. Then, suddenly, there she was aged 18, having fled the home-made dungeon in which an antisocial technician, Wolfgang Priklopil, had held her captive in the interim.
Shocking as it was then, the Kampusch case no longer holds a unique place in Austrian criminal history. Not two years have passed and the kidnapping has been overshadowed by two unsettlingly similar cases, both involving children held in captivity for long periods. In the mind's eye of non-Austrians, the land of powder skiing, avid recycling and Glühwein has morphed into the kind of place - like Belgium - in which sordid things happen to children.
Less than a year after the Kampusch scandal shocked the world, details of a second case of long-term child abuse emerged. Three girls had been imprisoned by their mother for seven years. The girls, aged 7, 11 and 13 when their mother won custody of them, were eventually discovered living in filth. The mother, a middle-class lawyer, had suffered a nervous breakdown, taken the girls out of school and shut them away from the outside world, where they lived in total darkness among mouse droppings and urine. Psychiatrists have predicted that the eldest of the girls will never fully recover.
Then, this weekend, we find out that a seemingly respectable former engineer in his seventies has kept his 42-year-old daughter locked in his cellar since she was 19. The woman, who bore her father seven children during her captivity, was discovered only after one of the children she had with her father fell into a coma in hospital.
It is useful in this context to mention some other things going on in Austria that have been overlooked by the international press - including a series of investigations that threaten to envelop the Austrian police. These suggest a force so allegedly riddled with corruption and incompetence that even those responsible for handling the Kampusch case have been implicated.
There is also the country's apparent problem with institutional racism. There is concern over a number of deaths and injuries in police custody of foreign nationals. (There have been no convictions; Amnesty International has made a formal complaint.)
Then there are the controversial photographs that have surfaced of Jörg Haider, the former leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party; the increasing tendency of Austrian politicians to sue journalists who dare to look into their affairs; the BAWAG banking scandal - which resulted in the loss of billions of euros in questionable investments - and the revelation in 2006 that this well-to-do Alpine country had slipped five places in Transparency International's corruption index.
There is a theory that Austrian culture is somehow to blame for the cases of child imprisonment that have come to light. Certainly it is true that in two of these cases, neighbours admitted to reporters that they knew the perpetrators and victims of the crimes only by their surnames.
There is a petit bourgeous formality in Austria, a hangover from imperial times, an assumption that a respectable member of the community - a lawyer or engineer, for example - could never be the author of a serious crime. It explains why a mother of three can take her children out of school without generating much suspicion, for instance. And, conversely, why foreigners - especially foreigners of non-Austrian appearance - tend to be treated with, at best, scepticism. A native of Ghana or Turkey travelling on a Vienna tram can expect to have his or her ticket scrutinised by inspectors far more often than white, German-speaking passengers.
Furthermore, Austrian privacy laws ensure that the private lives of prominent people are rarely exposed. Roman Abramovich retreated to Austria after his divorce.
Data protection means that it is virtually impossible to find out simple things: why a person has received planning permission, for example, or who put the advertisement in the newspaper for which only whites needed to apply.
But there is another reason why such crimes can happen in an otherwise affluent and civilised society. When neighbours of the middle-class lawyer noticed that she took meals only in her car, for example, the authorities were promptly and repeatedly informed. But, for reasons we may never know, they refused to act. No police officer or social worker was forced to answer for having failed to intervene.
Now The Times has been told that the 73-year-old father who is accused of repeatedly having raped his imprisoned daughter - an accusation that he denies - has a previous conviction for rape. Which raises the question of why the authorities deemed him fit to adopt the three children he claimed his daughter had left on his doorstep. And what are the details of this initial conviction? The police now fear that they may have either lost or destroyed his criminal record.
What links these three cases is not just the theme of child abuse and/or neglect, but the almost total lack of accountability by the authorities involved.
You seem to see the same trend with allegations of police brutality: in 1999, when Marcus Omofuma from Nigeria died while being deported from Austria by air - police had allegedly suffocated him by taping his mouth and nose; four years later, when Seibani Wague from Mauritius died after apparently being pinned to the ground by Austrian police officers; in April 2006, when Bakary J. from The Gambia was seriously injured, also apparently by the police. No officer has yet been sentenced.
Further alarming questions have been raised by the current investigations into the Austrian police force. It is alleged that the Friends of the Austrian Police, a society where police could network with powerful figures in politics and business - and, allegedly, crime - was deeply corrupt.
And the Kampusch story won't die. The girl-in-the-cellar tale had holes in it from the start. We had been told since the outset that she had been locked underground for eight years, yet it later emerged that Kampusch had accompanied her kidnapper on a skiing trip - and that Priklopil's colleague of 25 years, Ernst Holzapfel, had been introduced to Natascha but told police that he simply assumed that his otherwise strange and celibate friend had found himself a girlfriend. There were other loose ends too: persistent rumours of a sadomasochistic club scene frequented by Priklopil, unconfirmed reports of inappropriate photographs, conflicting statements by neighbours. And the white van. Why was it never traced to Priklopil?
In February this year, Herwig Haidinger, former head of the Federal Criminal Police Office, the Austrian equivalent of Scotland Yard, exposed the scandal that led to the current investigation of the work of the police, after revealing that Priklopil had been identified as a key suspect within weeks of the kidnapping but nothing had been done. The Interior Minister at the time, Liese Prokop, who has since died, appears to have suppressed the news, and officials apparently misled the press on her behalf.
Police are now being investigated by an independent committee after a former top-ranking official broke his silence to claim that detectives botched the inquiry by neglecting decisive evidence that would have led to the kidnapper, then covered up their mistakes to avoid a scandal.
A newspaper investigation sparked a public outcry this month when it was alleged that police held back evidence including photographs and videos, as well as Kampusch's diary and notes by her abductor that could indicate his involvement with an unknown number of accomplices. The leads were not analysed by police and had been sealed by prosecutors in 2006.
Some of the items, including the diaries, were even handed over to Kampusch, while one photograph was reportedly destroyed. Other evidence, including a reported hint by Kampusch that Priklopil had accomplices, as well as the testimony of witnesses who claimed that he was well-known on the local sadomasochistic scene for his brutality and proclivity for sex slaves in school uniforms, was apparently disregarded by investigators.
Two years ago in Vienna we went to see one of the senior officers in charge of the case. It was a bizarre experience. The man, a high-ranking general in the Austrian police force, agreed to meet us in his office, where he offered us coffee and biscuits and made polite, irrelevant small talk. He clearly saw himself as a sort of mediator or soother of brows rather than a man in charge of the facts. When pressed, he didn't seem to know any facts.
Could he tell us whether Priklopil, who had thrown himself in front of a train after Kampusch's escape, had a criminal record? No, that would be contravening Austria's data protection laws. How about Kampusch's family and Priklopil's friends - had they ever been in trouble with the law? No can do, he said - data protection. What about rumours concerning video and photographic evidence found in Priklopil's home? The general told us that the police had decided that such evidence had no relevance to the case: it was, he said, “private”.
He made it clear that from Kampusch's point of view - and, therefore, his - Priklopil was dead, therefore the case was more or less solved: an unusual interpretation of events by a policeman, even if Kampusch was the undisputed victim of this crime.
What about the truth? What happened during those missing eight years? He and Natascha Kampusch, said the general, got on very well. She was a lovely girl, really. She had been in this very office. And finally: “I consider her a friend.”
Original Article -
Also See -
Then see related -