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Austria Judge Takes U.S. Lawyer’s Watch

January 13, 2003

SALZBURG, Austria (AP) _ A judge presiding over the trial of 16 suspects charged in an alpine cable-car fire that killed 155 people ordered an American lawyer to turn over his wristwatch and pocket change Monday for failing to pay a court fine.

Judge Manfred Seiss took the unusual step after New York-based lawyer Ed Fagan, who is representing American victims of the November 2000 disaster, showed up in court without having paid a $5,133 fine imposed last year for practicing law in Austria without a license.

Fagan, who was declared in default of the fine last October, turned over two $20 bills, some coins and his wristwatch to the court bailiff as the trial resumed Monday after a more than two-month recess, the Austria Press Agency reported.

Fagan told The Associated Press that he planned to sue the Austrian authorities and the United States ``for interfering with the rights of the victims.″

``This whole trial is in my opinion the most outrageous example of injustice that I’ve seen in a long time,″ Fagan said. He denied he was practicing law in Austria, saying he was merely observing.

The incident was the latest to rock the trial, which began last June but has been plagued by disruptions, including a defendant who fainted in the courtroom and an expert witness for the prosecution who suffered a nervous breakdown under relentless cross-examination.

Seiss briefly reconvened the trial Monday to appoint Helmut Prader as the new court expert to oversee the prosecution’s case after Anton Muhr, the former expert, suffered the breakdown last year.

Because of uncertainty over what caused the blaze, and the need to brief Prader on the background of the case, Seiss has said he doesn’t expect a verdict in the case until spring. On Monday, he ordered the proceedings postponed again until March 10.

Sixteen defendants _ cable-car operators, technicians and government officials _ are being tried for their roles in the Nov. 11, 2000, inferno in Kaprun, 60 miles south of Salzburg.

The fire broke out as a crowded cable car carried 161 skiers, snowboarders and a driver up the Kitzsteinhorn glacier through a tunnel. Only a few managed to escape what was Austria’s deadliest peacetime disaster.

Previously, investigators said the blaze started when a space heater caused hydraulic brake oil in nearby pipes to overheat and drip onto the plastic-coated floor, setting it afire.

But eight expert witnesses testified that the fire also could have been caused by cable that overheated.

Most victims were from Austria and Germany. Eight were Americans and others were from Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

Separate trials are under way in New York and in Germany, where lawyers for the American and German victims are seeking several billion dollars in compensation.

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