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The White March, held in 1996, commemorated Dutroux's victims, including 8-year-olds Julie and Melissa
The White March, held in 1996, commemorated Dutroux's victims, including 8-year-olds Julie and Melissa -
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Explainer: Paedophile Marc Dutroux and the horror case that united a divided Belgium

On Sunday, 20 October, 400 Belgians met in the streets of Brussels on what they called the Black March – to protest against the potential early release from prison of paedophile and child killer Marc Dutroux.

Today, Monday, 28 October, Belgium's sentencing court ordered a new psychiatric report on Dutroux that could see this become a reality in 2021.

The report, requested by Dutroux's lawyers, must be submitted by 11 May next year. Experts will determine whether Dutroux is likely to re-offend, and will examine the impact of his detention in solitary confinement over the past 23 years. "We hope that the experts will tell us about his psychological profile and whether he is really still dangerous, as people warned," his lawyer, Bruno Dayez, said.

The Black March demonstration was a faint echo of the White March when on the same date in 1996 between 275,000 and 350,000 (estimates vary) people took to the streets after Dutroux's arrest to honour his victims, in what was by far the largest protest in Belgian history.

Eight years later, in 2004, Dutroux was sentenced to life in prison for the abduction and rape of six girls – aged between eight and 19 – in 1995 and 1996, and the deaths of two of them, who he buried alive.

Two of the remaining four girls died when they starved in the makeshift cell Dutroux had constructed in his basement after he was sent to prison for four months for theft and left them there. His then-wife, primary school teacher Michelle Martin, had been instructed to give them food and water, but did not.

These girls were still alive when police first searched Dutroux's house. Officers heard what they described as the cries of children, but these were dismissed as coming from outside the house and not investigated.

The final two victims were found alive in the same underground chamber upon Dutroux's arrest.

The organisers of 1996's White March were also calling for reform of Belgium's parole system, asking lawmakers to ensure that those convicted of crimes like Dutroux's would never be eligible for early release.

Dutroux had been out on parole at the time of his 1995 and 1996 crimes, after being convicted of five counts of child rape in 1989 and serving three years of a 13-year sentence before being given early release for good behaviour.

Dutroux's crimes traumatised and, in what is a rare occurrence for Belgium, united the nation, albeit in horror, and shattered public confidence in the justice system. The case is commonly described in the country as the worst thing to happen to it since the Second World War. More than a third of Belgians with the surname Dutroux applied to change it between 1996 and 1998.

The crimes

In order for Dutroux to be freed in 2021, he will have to demonstrate that he would be able to reintegrate into society, affirm that he would not contact his victims' families and that he would not be considered likely to commit further crimes. Should he meet the conditions and be released, he will have served 25 years of his life sentence.

Dayez, this week called the sentence "exorbitant". Few in Belgium who remember the summer of 1995 are likely to agree.

The faces of Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, eight-year-old school friends who disappeared on 24 June after going for a walk in a suburb of Liège, haunted the country, smiling from car windshields and lamp posts in a poster and leaflet campaign organised by the girls' parents.

Julie and Melissa had been kidnapped by Dutroux, an unemployed electrician, and taken to his house in the city of Charleroi, where they were imprisoned in the dungeon he had constructed. Dutroux raped both girls repeatedly and made pornographic videos of the abuse.

Two months later in the coastal city of Ostend, on 23 August, Dutroux and his accomplice Michel Lelièvre kidnapped two teenage girls, An Marchal and Eefje Lambrecks, best friends who were on holiday and on their way home from a night out in a club.

After a month of being imprisoned in a bedroom in the same house as Julie and Melissa, the two were buried alive by Dutroux and another accomplice, Bernard Weinstein.

In November, Weinstein met the same fate. He was wanted by police in connection with a stolen van and Dutroux decided to kill him in order to avoid being snared in any investigation. The following month, Dutroux was arrested over the same theft and served a four-month sentence.

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A police officer reveals the cell in which Dutroux incarcerated and abused his young victimsAFP

It was in this period that Julie and Melissa died after Martin claimed she was too afraid to go to the dungeon to feed them as instructed. Dutroux buried their bodies in the garden of a house he owned in the village of Sars-la-Buissière.

In May 1996, Dutroux and Lelièvre abducted 12-year-old Sabine Dardenne as she rode her bike to school in the southwestern city of Tournai, near the French border. Sabine was held in Dutroux's dungeon for four months where she too was starved and repeatedly raped.

That August, she was joined by 14-year-old Laetitia Delhez, who was kidnapped by Dutroux and Lelièvre as she walked home from her local swimming pool in the southern town of Bertrix.

Four days later, Dutroux, Martin and Lelièvre were arrested. An eyewitness to the abduction of Laetitia had been able to give the licence plate of Dutroux's van to police.

Two days later Dutroux and Lelièvre confessed, and Dutroux led police to his makeshift dungeon, where Sabine and Laetitia were found alive. Two days after that, the bodies of Julie and Melissa, and Weinstein were exhumed, and 17 days later, those of An and Eefje.

The investigation

The handling of Dutroux's case by investigators, rife with mistakes and oversights, was seen by Belgians as an insult to injury and prompted cries of corruption.

Although he was a convicted paedophile on parole and a suspect in the disappearance of Julie and Melissa, police did not search Dutroux's house for five months after their abduction. When they did, they failed to find the girls after choosing not to investigate the cries they heard.

Dutroux escaped custody while travelling to a court appearance in 1998. He was quickly recaptured, but the police chief, justice minister and interior minister all resigned in the wake of the incident. Dutroux's lawyers had at the time been arguing for his release, saying that the length of time he had been held without trial, having been arrested in 1996, was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. He was subsequently convicted for his escape attempt, thwarting this bid.

In October 1996, the examining magistrate, Jean-Marc Connerotte, was dismissed from the case after he attended a fundraising event for the victims' families. Connerotte had been viewed as a national hero after he arrested Dutroux and liberated his final two victims and his dismissal aroused enormous public anger.

Half a million Belgians participated in sit-ins, strikes and riots in the three days following. The White March, a peaceful demonstration at which people wore white and silently carried flowers and balloons, was the culmination of these protests.

There had been reported sightings of eight-year-old Melissa Russo after the date of her kidnap, at various nightclubs. These were never followed up by police, who maintain that Dutroux was a lone paedophile, rather than someone supplying young girls to a network of men, as he claimed at his trial.

Melissa's parents and many Belgians with them believed him, and that other people had access to their daughter and her friend Julie, and that the failure to investigate this pointed to a cover-up of a wider paedophile ring that included police officers and members of the country's establishment.

Julie's father Jean-Denis Lejeune was also vocal about his lack of trust in the investigation after it emerged that video seized from Dutroux's home during the first visit by police, while Julie and Melissa were still alive in the cellar, of him constructing their cell, was not watched by investigating officers.

The trial

Dutroux, who declined a ban on his being photographed during his trial, and spoke from inside a protective glass box, denied all charges. He claimed to be a small player in a paedophile ring run by the Belgian elite, and that he had been helped in his abduction of the girls by police.

AFP
Dutroux adresses the Court from his protected boxAFP

Dutroux named powerful Belgian businessman Michel Nihoul as his link to this alleged child trafficking enterprise and Nihoul was among 13 people charged in the case, with kidnap, rape, conspiracy and drug offences. Nihoul, who in a newspaper interview referred to himself as "the monster of Belgium", also stated that he had "information about important people in Belgium that could bring the government down".

He was convicted only on the charges of drug trafficking and criminal conspiracy, sentenced to five years and released after two. Nihoul died this week, on Wednesday, 23 October, at the age 78, having suffered from failing health for several months. No evidence of a wider paedophile ring was ever found by police.

Dutroux was confronted in court by his youngest victim, Sabine, who was 12 at the time of her kidnap. She had been drugged, stripped and had a chain fixed around her neck. When she asked Dutroux why he had not killed her, he replied coolly: "It was never my intention to harm her in any way," and claimed he had saved her from "a wicked chief".

Upon hearing Sabine's descriptions of what Dutroux had subjected her to, the father of another of his victims, Pol Marchal, collapsed in the courtroom and had to be taken to hospital.

The parole hearings

In August 2012, Dutroux's ex-wife and accomplice Michelle Martin was granted parole 16 years into her 30-year sentence, a move that was met by protests. Thousands marched, again calling for reform of Belgium's judicial system and coffins bearing Martin's name were set alight.

The demonstration was organised by Jean-Denis Lejeune, Melissa's father, and attended by one of his two surviving victims, Laetitia Delhez, who called for greater consideration of victims in decisions on parole. Pol Marchal also called for the involvement of victims and their families in the process.

Dutroux's other accomplice Michel Lelièvre, who was found guilty of kidnapping but not of rape or murder, was granted parole last month after serving 23 years of his 25-year sentence. He has been given six months to secure a place to live and will be released if successful.

Jean Lambrecks was present at the hearing and told Belgian television channel RTBF: "We never had answers to our questions. What happened with the girls, where were they abducted, how and at whose request? There are many tracks, but very few concrete answers. Answers held by Mr Lelièvre."

Reuters
Protesters hold a banner reading 'Dutroux must stay in jail' in 2013, the last time the convicted paedophile and killer requested paroleReuters

Last year, Dutroux's lawyer wrote to the families of his victims offering them answers to these questions and the opportunity to "heal their wounds". This offer was rejected by the families, who declared it a cynical move by Dutroux aimed at securing his early release. Lambrecks, who comes from Dutch-speaking Flanders, pointed out that the letter had been written in French and not even translated, calling it a publicity stunt. An's father Pol Marchal told Belgian TV: "After 23 years, it's time this circus just stops."

Jean-Denis Lejeune, Julie's father, learned about the letter on the anniversary of his daughter's funeral, and referred to it as "mental torture".

Dutroux last requested parole in 2013. His request was denied on the basis that he would not be able to reintegrate into Belgian society.

His mother, Jeannine Dutroux, told Belgian newspaper Le Soir, in an interview published hours before the hearing, that she believed he would re-offend if released. "I am certain he will start again," she said. "Marc isn't ready to be released because he still wants to attribute to others the responsibility for what he did."

AFP
Laetitia Delhez and Sabine Dardenne make an emotional return to the cellar in which Dutroux incarcerated them, during his 2004 trialAFP

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