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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 June, 2004, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Belgium's trial of shame
By Alexandra Fouché
BBC News Online

The case that has kept Belgium on tenterhooks since 1996 has finally come to a close after years of delays and blunders.

Sabine Dardenne
Sabine Dardenne gave dramatic testimony
It took nearly eight years to come to trial, partly because police were investigating claims that the man at the centre of the case, Marc Dutroux, was part of a wider paedophile ring.

A convicted paedophile, Dutroux was accused of kidnapping and repeatedly raping six girls in the 1990s, and killing four of them.

The court in the south-eastern town of Arlon initially heard the harrowing details of the ordeals the girls suffered, how Dutroux kept them locked in makeshift cells in his basement and regularly raped them.

Testifying shortly after the beginning of the trial, he admitted kidnapping two teenage girls and raping his captives.

MARATHON TRIAL
Trial began on 1 March, convictions were handed down on 17 June
Case took eight years to come to court
About 300 witnesses heard
Trial cost: 4.6m euros (£3m)
About 440,000 pages of evidence

He told the court that two policemen took part in the kidnappings of An Marchal, 17, and Eefje Lambrecks, 19, in August 1995.

But he denied kidnapping two eight-year-olds, Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, and all the charges of murder.

Dutroux blamed his ex-wife, Michelle Martin, for Julie and Melissa's deaths and claimed he had been angry when he came home to find the girls there, but was persuaded by Martin to keep them.

Buried alive

Later in the trial, it emerged that Martin had admitted she starved the girls to death while her husband was in prison for several months.

An investigator said Martin told him she was scared to visit the girls in the basement, thinking they might attack her.

KIDNAPPED GIRLS
Julie Lejeune, 8, starved
Melissa Russo, 8, starved
An Marchal, 17, buried in garden
Eefje Lambrecks, 19, buried in garden
Sabine Dardenne, then aged 12 - survived
Laetitia Delhez, then aged 14 - survived

The same investigator said Ms Marchal and Ms Lambrecks were drugged with sleeping pills and repeatedly raped before being buried alive.

On 10 March, Laetitia Delhez, one of the women abducted and raped by Dutroux, attended the trial for the first time as a spectator only.

On 18 March, a key to a pair of handcuffs was found near Dutroux's jail cell, hidden in a bag of salt in a prison kitchen, but Dutroux denies any knowledge of an escape plan.

At the end of the month, the court heard the testimony of Rene Michaux, a policeman who went looking for Julie and Melissa in Dutroux's basement, but failed to find the door leading to where the children were hidden. He even heard children's voices, but thought they came from the street outside.

A couple of weeks later, the court heard details of letters written by the other woman who survived Dutroux's treatment, Sabine Dardenne, while she was held captive.

In the letters, which she was promised would be sent to her family but never were, she described what she called "the room of agony" and said she did not think she would ever see her relatives again.

Survivor testimony

Then on 19 April, Ms Dardenne appeared in court to testify against Dutroux.

Dutroux held her captive for 80 days at his home in 1996 and raped her repeatedly.

DUTROUX CASE
1993: Marc Dutroux freed early from child sex sentence. Soon after, girls start to disappear near his houses
13 August 1996: Dutroux arrested
15 August 1996: Sabine Dardenne, 12, and Laetitia Delhez, 14, found alive in basement of house
17 August 1996: Bodies of Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, both 8, found buried
13 September 1996: Bodies of Eefje Lambrecks, 19, and An Marchal, 17, are found
1 March 2004: Dutroux and other suspects go on trial

In a testimony widely acknowledged as brave, Ms Dardenne, who was 12 at the time, demanded to know why he had not killed her.

She also said Dutroux was the only man she saw throughout her captivity and the only person who abused her.

Dutroux told the court that he recognised he had abused Ms Dardenne, saying he took "responsibility for that".

"I acknowledge my mistakes. I acknowledge that I abused her. But for me there was never any question of killing her," he said.

Ms Dardenne also asked Michelle Martin why she as a mother stood by and allowed the abuse to happen.

Martin replied she did not expect Ms Dardenne to forgive the unforgivable.

Ms Dardenne, now 20, was the first of the two surviving girls to address the court.

A couple of days after Sabine's testimony, Ms Delhez was back in court, this time to testify.

Aged 14 at the time, Ms Delhez was incarcerated for six days in the same basement cell as Ms Dardenne. Dutroux said he had kidnapped her to give Ms Dardenne a friend.

Ms Delhez, now 22, told the court how she was chained to a bed and raped after her abduction in 1996.

Dutroux told the two women he "realised the bad things" he had done and apologised to them, but Ms Dardenne told him to "Go to hell."

Ms Dardenne and Ms Delhez were released when Dutroux led police to his basement after his arrest in 1996.

House of pain

A week after those painful testimonies, the two women returned to the scene of their incarceration.

Dutroux himself, as well as judges, lawyers, court officials and victims' families, also went to the house.

Ms Delhez said she wanted to return to the dungeon-like cellar to help her "come to terms" with her ordeal, accompanied by her family so "they can realise what I went through".

In early May, psychiatric witnesses described Dutroux as a self-obsessed psychopath who knew exactly what he was doing, and found he was also a manipulator and narcissistic.

At the end of May, lawyers for the families of Ms Marchal and Ms Lambrecks argued for a guilty verdict, but voiced different opinions on the existence of a wider paedophile ring.

Then, in early June, Dutroux's lawyer sensationally called for the suspension of the trial to give investigators time to confirm the existence of such a child sex ring.

But the request was rejected by the judge a few days later, and the verdict was finally handed down on 17 June.




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