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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 18:26 GMT
Dutroux affair haunts Belgian police
Marc Dutroux
Marc Dutroux is expected to face trial next year
When Marc Dutroux was arrested and charged with the kidnap and murder of four young girls in 1996, the Belgian public reacted with shock and outrage.

These feelings were compounded when it became apparent that police and officials had shown gross incompetence in allowing Dutroux to evade capture.


Officials were accused of ignoring informants, mistreating the parents of the victims and failing to pass on vital information

Dutroux had been released on parole after an earlier conviction for raping five girls, and despite a string of clues and tip-offs, police failed to make the connection between him and a series of abductions.

Their most notorious failure came when officers searched his home, but failed to find two eight-year-old girls - Melissa Russo and Julie Lejeune - held prisoner in the basement.

The pair later starved to death after Dutroux was arrested on a completely separate issue - car theft.

Officials have also been accused of mistreating the parents of the victims, and of failing to pass vital information between prosecutors and police.

The police faced further humiliation in 1998 when Dutroux suceeded in escaping for three hours after overpowering an officer who was guarding him.

Their humiliation deepened when it was revealed that Dutroux had been allowed to leave the prison where was being held, in order to view documents which would be used in his trial.

Charges

Dutroux had finally been arrested in August 1996, and charged with kidnapping and murdering two girls and two young women.

Marc Dutroux in custody
Dutroux's escape galvanised public anger over the case

While in custody, he admitted being involved in the four abductions - and in kidnapping two other girls who were found alive.

But Dutroux insisted he had had nothing to do with the four murders.

The bodies of the two eight-year-olds, Melissa and Julie, were found on 18 August 1996, in the garden of one of Dutroux's homes near Charleroi.

The two others, 17-year-old An Marchal and 19-year-old Eefje Lambreks, kidnapped on 22 August 1995, were found on 3 September 1996, in the house of one of his alleged accomplices, Bernard Weinstein.

Weinstein was himself killed - and his body found in the garden of one of Dutroux's homes. Dutroux said he had drugged his friend and buried him alive in March or April 1996 after Weinstein tried to double-cross him.

Call for reform

In the wake of Dutroux's arrest, hundreds of thousands of Belgians took to the streets to protest at officials' handling of the case, and called for sweeping reforms of the judicial system.

Demonstration in Brussels
Thousands mourned the murdered girls - and demanded judicial reforms
The government - shaken by the immense scale of public anger - promised changes to the constitution to reduce political interference in the judicial process.

The country's then-Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, promised to end political appointments of judges, and to establish an information centre on missing children.

A special commission was created to investigate the handling of the case, and several police officers were disciplined on charges of negligence and corruption.

Dutroux is currently in prison serving a five-year sentence he received for threatening a police officer during his 1998 escape.

He is expected to face trial early next year.

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