Belgium prepares for 'trial of the century'

Belgium's "most hated man" finally goes on trial on Monday, eight years after his arrest for a brutal spree of abductions, rapes and murders of schoolgirls that shocked the world.

    Michelle Martin is Dutroux's estranged wife

    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 s

    ome 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.

    SOURCE: AFP


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