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Thursday, April 23, 1998 Published at 19:14 GMT 20:14 UK

World: Europe

Belgium in mourning

The funerals of Melissa Russo and Julie Lejeune who starved to death in a basement

In 1996, more than a quarter of a million Belgians marched in the streets of Brussels to protest at the Dutroux paedophile scandal. It was the largest demonstration that the country had ever seen.

The 250,000 strong demonstration was organised by the families of the victims. It became known as the "white march" because the protestors either wore white, or carried white balloons, flowers and crosses in memory of the dead or missing children.

[ image: A quarter of a million people marched in protest]
A quarter of a million people marched in protest
Since 1996 over one third of Belgian citizens who share the same surname as Marc Dutroux have applied to have it changed.

Belgian people were horrified not just at the terrible offences with which Dutroux, a convicted child rapist, is charged, but also because of the suspected complicity of the authorities. Dutroux was out on parole for previous child-sex offences when he allegedly committed his crimes. Despite many clues and tip-offs, an investigation failed to link him to the offences.

At one point police searched his home but failed to find two eight-year-old girls held prisoner in his basement. They later starved to death there after Dutroux was arrested for car theft.

[ image: The 1996 police picture of Marc Dutroux]
The 1996 police picture of Marc Dutroux
Many Belgians believed that Dutroux and his paedophile ring were protected by several police and politicians.

The people demanded far-reaching reforms of the Belgian justice system.

The Belgian Government was shaken by the immense scale of public anger and promised changes to the country's constitution to reduce political interference in the judicial process. The country's Prime Minister, Jean Luc Dehaene, immediately promised that he would end political appointments of judges and set up an information centre on missing children.

A special commission has since been set up to examine the handling of the case. Last month one police officer involved in the case was disciplined for his part in the inquiry. Four other officers are facing charges of corruption and negligence in relation to the case.

The charges against Dutroux

Following his arrest in August 1996, Dutroux was charged with kidnapping and murdering four young girls. In custody he admitted to kidnapping six girls between 1995 and 1996. Two of his victims, 12-year-old Sabine Dardenne, and 14-year-old Laetitia Delhez, were found alive.

The bodies of Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, both aged eight, were found on August 18, 1996, in the garden of one of Dutroux's homes near Charleroi.

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

Weinstein's body was 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.

Also arrested with Dutroux in 1996 was his wife, Michelle Martin, who is still in pre-trial custody.

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