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|Eight years on, Dutroux appears in court - but will the truth be heard?
Suspicions of a wider network linger as date arrives for trial of Belgian child killer
The Guardian | February 28, 2004
Sabine Dardenne has waited a long time for this moment. On Monday morning, in a wood-panelled courtroom in the picturesque Belgian town of Arlon, Marc Dutroux, the man who abducted her nearly eight years ago, is finally to answer for his crimes.
Dardenne was 12 in 1996 when she was chained to a bed for 79 days and repeatedly abused. And she was one of the less unfortunate victims of a man accused of the kidnapping, rape, torture and murder of four other girls and young women.
Belgium's "trial of the century" promises to be deeply traumatic for a divided country, where the Dutroux affair has become a national tragedy. It is also likely to leave vital questions unanswered - not least whether the defendant formed part of wider network.
Dutroux, 47, his ex-wife Michelle Martin, 44, and two other men will face the court under heavy security and intense media scrutiny. Hearings are likely to last for four months, with 700 witnesses listed. If found guilty, Dutroux faces life imprisonment.
Psychologists say this story touches on the darkest and most primal of all human fears, concerning as it does the drugging, sexual violation and killing of children concealed in dark cellars.
Dutroux's youngest victims were only eight. Melissa Russo and Julie Lejeune were abducted in June 1995. They drew on the dank walls as they starved to death in cages in a hidden dungeon under his home at Marcinelle, near Charleroi, while he was serving a prison sentence for theft.
Martin, a mother of three, allegedly fed her husband's German shepherd dogs but not the girls, who were later buried in bin bags in the back garden. Dug up with their bodies was that of Dutroux's French associate, Bernard Weinstein, who had been drugged and buried alive. "He was still breathing when I put him in the ground," Dutroux admitted.
In August that year it was the turn of An Marchal, 17, and Eefje Lambrecks, 19, abducted while hitchhiking near Ostend, in Dutch-speaking Flanders. They were forced to swallow a sedative and raped. Their emaciated bodies, their mouths gagged, were discovered at another of Dutroux's properties.
Sabine Dardenne was bundled into a van while cycling to school in May 1996. Laetitia Delhez, then 14, was kidnapped on August 9. Dutroux told Sabine her parents were refusing to pay a ransom to free her.
Police found the girls cowering naked in the dungeon when their tormentor was arrested four days later, along with a heroin addict, Michel Lelievre, 32, now the third defendant in the case.
Much is already known: 400,000 pages of confidential evidence have been leaked on DVDs that include photos from the autopsies of victims, of the recovery of their bodies, and child pornography found in Dutroux's possession.
Under Belgian law the press is free to publish evidence before a trial, as long as it does not breach rules on prejudice or privacy.
But there is another story: an appalling catalogue of legal and procedural errors, turf wars and incompetence by the police, politicians and judges - and, say some, irresponsible media.
The first investigating magistrate was dismissed after having supper with one of the victim's families. Several prosecutors, police officers and witnesses have committed suicide. Evidence has gone astray.
After Dutroux's arrest it transpired not only that he had been under surveillance, but also that he had served six years of a 12-year jail term for child rape. The prison governor described him as a psychopath. The Charleroi gendarmerie were told by an informer that he was deepening his cellars to conceal children before selling them abroad. But no report was ever filed.
"Dutroux was allowed back into society like a grenade with the pin removed, waiting to explode at any moment," wrote Marc Metdepenningen, a journalist who has covered the case extensively.
Worse still, police searched the house where Julie and Melissa were hidden but failed to find them. Once they heard cries for help but accepted Dutroux's claim that the noise was coming from children in the street. No listening devices, heat sensors or other equipment was used, but police found handcuffs, chloroform, vaginal cream and a gynaecological mirror.
Potential connecting information fell through the cracks between different police services, and particularly between units in the Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia.
Grief and fury over the killings erupted into protests known as the Marche Blanche in 1996, when 350,000 people took to the streets of Brussels.
That was not the end of the story. Two years later the most hated man in the land escaped briefly; and it emerged recently that he had been allowed to correspond with a 15-year old girl for two years.
Dutroux mounted a bid for release on the grounds that he had been held for too long without trial and in inhumane conditions. Psychologists describe him as a having a strong sense of his own victimhood.
There is anger from the victims' parents about how they have been treated.
"It took four corpses, including my child's, before they would listen to us," said Gino Russo, Melissa's father.
"To be in court would sully the memory of my daughter," said Jean-Denis Lejeune.
For them and many others, the crucial question is whether Dutroux is telling the truth in hinting that he procured girls for a network of establishment figures, and that a massive cover-up is going on.
This was the thrust of revelations by a woman called Regina Louf, who told police of child sex parties involving judges, politicians, bankers and members of the royal family. But her stories of sadism, bestiality and murder have been widely dismissed as deranged fantasy.
The fourth defendant, Michael Nihoul, a 62-year old alleged conman and well-known figure at a Brussels sex club, is expected to loom large in this context. Nihoul denies supplying ecstasy pills to Dutroux and Lelievre in exchange for Laetitia Delhez.
Sabine Dardenne, in any event, has always said she never saw anyone but Dutroux during her captivity, strengthening the case that he was a "lone predator."
Now 20, Dardenne will be in court on Monday. "I want to look Dutroux in the eye and make him understand that despite everything he made me suffer I did not go insane," she said.
"I cannot forget what happened, but I am alive and I will prove it to him."
Trail of terror
June 1995 Melissa Russo, eight, and Julie Lejeune, eight, kidnapped
August An Marchal, 19, and Eefje Lambrecks, 17, disappear
November Marc Dutroux jailed for three months for car crime
June 1996 Sabine Dardenne, 12, kidnapped
August Laetitia Delheze, 14, kidnapped. Sabine and Laetitia rescued from dungeon in Dutroux's basement. Bodies of Melissa and Julie and Bernard Weinstein found buried in garden
September Bodies of Ann and Eefje uncovered
October 350,000 Belgians march to protest at police incompetence
October 1997 Belgian parliamentary inquiry accuses police of bungling
April 1998 Dutroux escapes
March 2004 Dutroux and three associates stand trial in Arlon
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