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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 February, 2004, 16:48 GMT
Belgian justice on trial with Dutroux

By Chris Morris
BBC Europe correspondent

It has taken eight years for Belgium's most hated man to come to trial.

Suspect Marc Dutroux
Dutroux says he was part of a wider conspiracy

But Marc Dutroux is finally due in court on Monday charged with the abduction, rape and murder of young girls in a case whose gruesome detail shocked the country and the world.

Long-standing allegations of a cover-up and charges of police incompetence led to mass protests against Belgium's archaic judicial system. But many fear the trial will still leave many questions unanswered.

Back in 1996, Mr Dutroux led police to the bodies of four young girls buried underground. Two eight-year-olds had starved to death in captivity. Two other girls were rescued from Mr Dutroux's cellar. One of them had been abused for 80 days.

What has made it worse are claims of a broad conspiracy and a paedophile network at the heart of the Belgian establishment.

Police search for evidence of the crimes
I think the ordinary Belgian doesn't understand why it had to take eight years to judge a man whose crimes are so horrific
Mark Eeckhaut
De Standard newspaper

Ordinary Belgians were and have remained stunned. Mark Eeckhaut from De Standard newspaper said: "The word that comes to mind is monster.

"I think the ordinary Belgian doesn't understand why it had to take eight years to judge a man whose crimes are so horrific, so I think 99% of Belgians maybe think the process is a waste of time."

Shock turned long ago to public fury. The police and judiciary seemed guilty of gross incompetence.

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 Mr Dutroux's arrest it transpired not only that he had been under surveillance, but also that he had served six years of a jail term for child rape.

Potential connecting information fell through the cracks between different police services. Worse still, police searched the house where two of his victims were hidden but failed to find them.

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

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

The interior and justice ministers resigned after the incident.

Several of the parents of the young victims later said they had lost faith in the will of the authorities to uncover the truth.

Mr Dutroux - who admits abduction, but denies murder - has accused the Belgian police and justice system of refusing to investigate leads he provided, which he says would prove that he was just part of a wider paedophile conspiracy.

But Belgian officials say that the long delay bringing the case to court partly results from the need to investigate these alleged networks, which they say do not exist.

'System on trial'

Back in 1996, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the White March, one of the biggest protests Brussels has ever seen.

The White March
Thousands of Belgians took to the streets in protest

The government - shaken by the immense scale of public anger - promised changes to the constitution to reduce political interference in the judicial process.

But there is still a sense that the system itself is now on trial as well.

Conspiracy or no conspiracy, the system failed to follow clues and prevent terrible crimes taking place and then it failed to administer justice for eight long years.

Even now there is an unsettling sense of mystery hanging over this entire case.

Martine Van Praet, the lawyer charged with the defence of Belgium's most hated man says she fears it will be little more than a show trial.

"They've made him into a devil. And they say, 'There's the paedophile, the little girls, the horrible abuse'.

"They have made Mr Dutroux a devil and they are going to throw him away because he's been condemned, before the trial and it will leave the door open so all the bad things can continue."

But in a courtroom in the provincial city of Arlon, Mr Dutroux and three alleged accomplices, including his ex-wife are finally about to face Belgian justice.




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