More than 300 police will be deployed around the Palace of Justice in the small town of Arlon for the hearings into the alleged crimes of Marc Dutroux and three co-defendants.

The trial of the 47-year-old former electrician, who has been in custody since that dark summer of 1996, promises to be a long and emotional affair, lasting at least two months and hearing more than 450 witnesses.

But whether the trial will answer all of the questions being asked by Belgians remains to be seen.

Many believe Dutroux lay at the sinister heart of a paedophile ring that encompassed politicians, judges and policemen.

Conspiracy theories

The fact that the trial has taken so long to begin has only emboldened the conspiracy theorists.

According to a poll last week, 68% of Belgians believe Dutroux and his accomplices had protection from "people in high places".

Nearly as many, 66%, said Dutroux should face the death penalty, which was abolished in Belgium in 1996, a month before his arrest.

In the coming weeks prosecution lawyers will rake up the traumatic events that started with Dutroux's arrest on 13 August 1996 by police investigating the disappearance of two young girls.

The girls, Sabine Dardenne, aged 12 at the time, and Laetitia Delhez, then 14, were rescued two days later from captivity in the cellar of a property belonging to Dutroux in Charleroi, south of Brussels.

Horrifying ordeal

They had suffered a horrifying ordeal in the dank dungeon - they had been repeatedly raped, beaten and starved by the "monster of Charleroi", prosecutors say.

OTHER DEFENDANTS

Michel Nihoul

- Sixty-two-year-old property surveyor and fraudster. Reported to have procured girls for drug-fuelled sex orgies attended by government, police and judicial officials.

Michelle Martin

Dutroux's estranged wife, 44, is a former teacher. Arrested with Dutroux in February 1986 for the abductions and rape of five girls.

Michel Lelievre

A heroin-addict friend of Dutroux, Lelievre, 32, is accused of helping to kidnap the girls in return for drugs.

But worse was to come.

Subsequent investigations unearthed the bodies of four other girls, including two eight-year-olds, in the gardens of other properties belonging to Dutroux. The four girls had been missing for a year.

For Sabine Dardenne, who is now 20-years old, the trial will be a cathartic moment.

"I've been waiting for eight years for this moment," she said in a recent newspaper interview. "I want to look Dutroux in the eyes and show him that despite everything he made me suffer, I have not gone mad."

Sex parties

The victims' families will appear at different times in the trial. But some want nothing to do with it -the parents of Julie and Melissa are boycotting the "circus" trial.

Dutroux is charged with murder, rape, abduction and confinement in relation to the girls' ordeal, as well as for the murder of an alleged accomplice. He faces life in jail if convicted.

He will be standing trial alongside his wife Michelle Martin, 44; his "right-hand man" Michel Lelievre, 32; and a fourth suspect, Michel Nihoul, who all face charges of kidnapping and complicity in the crimes.

Nihoul, 62, is said to have organised sex parties for the Brussels social elite.

It is his involvement in particular that has kept alive suspicions that Dutroux was part of a much bigger operation.

Public fury

In 1996, fury at police and government incompetence culminated in a series of "white marches" in Belgium which at their height drew more than 300,000 people.

The public's anger was fuelled by the revelation that Dutroux had been sentenced to 13 years in jail in 1989 for the kidnapping and rape of five girls, but was freed only three years later.

The anger turned to incredulity when in 1998 Dutroux managed to escape briefly from a courthouse at Neufchateau, in southern Belgium.

The then interior and justice ministers were forced to resign.