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Child-Murder Case to Open in Belgium

Associated Press | 29th Feb 2004

ARLON, Belgium (AP) -- After nearly eight years, Belgian TV viewers are used to the sight of Marc Dutroux, small and pale with a thick mustache, handcuffed and wearing a bulletproof vest as he is shuffled between prison and courthouse.

But his name still evokes horror and rage in this nation of 10.3 million, and those emotions will stir anew on Monday when he and three alleged accomplices go on trial for the kidnap and rape of six girls, four of whom were murdered.

The crimes committed between 1995 and 1996 made international headlines, not only because of their horrifying nature but because of the stunning incompetence revealed in the investigation.

It led to one of Belgium's worst political crises and to high-level resignations. Some 300,000 people took to the streets in protest, and the $6 million trial is the most expensive, sensational and heavily secured in modern Belgian history.

"It should be a normal trial, but everybody knows this won't be the case. You cannot compare it to any other," said Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx.

The jury trial in this provincial town in the hills of southern Belgium is expected to last four months.

Paul Marchal, whose 17-year-old daughter An was murdered, is outraged at how long it has taken.

"I just want this trial to start. It's incredible, the authorities have lost so much time," he told the Associated Press at the office of a support group he runs for parents of missing children

The grisly story started in the summer of 1995 when 8-year-old friends Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, and An and 19-year-old Eefje Lambrecks, were abducted. A monthslong manhunt was unsuccessful.

Then, in May and August 1996, two more girls disappeared - Sabine Dardenne, 12, and Laetitia Delhez, 14.

Police say all were taken to a house in Marcinelle, 37 miles south of Brussels, where they were believed to have been drugged and raped.

The house belonged to Dutroux, then a 39-year-old unemployed electrician and car thief who already had drawn prison time for the rape of five girls in the mid-1980s.

On Aug. 13, 1996, Dutroux was arrested on a tip-off and police found Sabine and Laetitia alive in cells in his cellar. The bodies of Julie, Melissa, An and Eefje were found in backyard graves soon after.

Julie and Melissa are believed to have starved to death in Dutroux's cellar, while An and Eefje were reported to have been drugged and buried alive.

The discovery of the basement cells led to outrage when media reported that authorities were suspicious of Dutroux well before the girls were killed.

After tip-offs from several witnesses, including Dutroux's own mother, investigators searched the house in December, 1995. They failed to find the cells, even though they heard voices. A second search also was unsuccessful.

Compounding the anger was the fact that Dutroux was free on parole for the 1980s rapes.

Then the Supreme Court ordered investigating magistrate Jean-Marc Connerotte off the case for compromising his impartiality by attending a dinner organized by parents of the victims.

That triggered one of the biggest demonstrations in Belgian history, demanding the authorities clean up their act.

The protest threatened to bring down the government and pushed King Albert to publicly call on it to reform the judiciary.

The shortcomings of the police were exposed anew when Dutroux easily escaped from custody at a courthouse in April 1998.

He was recaptured four hours later, but the justice and interior ministers and the head of the federal police force all resigned.

Police forces and judicial districts were totally overhauled in an effort to correct the rivalry and lack of communication between local and national-level officers that so plagued the investigation.

From the outset, the case has been shadowed by rumors, never borne out, of high-level trafficking in children for sex.

Such stories and the multiple leaks from the file give Dutroux, now 47, little hope of a fair trial, his lawyers say.

"There were pages and pages published of the file to try and influence public opinion," said Xavier Magnee. "The presumption of innocence of my client has already been ignored."

Dutroux is charged with all four murders but is expected to plead guilty to only one - of an accomplice, Bernard Weinstein. His lawyers said he also would admit to kidnapping Sabine, Laetitia and An.

Michelle Martin, 45, Dutroux's ex-wife, stands accused of conspiracy in the kidnapping but claims Dutroux made her do it.

Michel Lelievre, 32, is charged with various counts of kidnapping and rape and for drug possession, and Michel Nihoul, 62, faces charges of kidnapping Laetitia.
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