Belgium's highest court has granted conditional early release to one of the nation's most despised criminals, the accomplice and former wife of a paedophile and child killer, even though she let two of his victims starve to death.
The Court of Cassation ruled on Tuesday that no procedural errors were made by a lower court to allow Michelle Martin to live in a convent after serving barely half of her 30-year sentence for her part in the mid-1990s kidnappings, rapes and killings by her then-husband, Marc Dutroux.
Under orders to steer clear of the outside world, she was freed by the five-man panel of judges who spent about an hour hearing submissions from plaintiffs and her lawyer before throwing out the grounds of two appeals against a July 31 regional court decision.
"There is only one word for this. This is simply absurd."
- Paul Marchal, father of one Dutroux's victims
"The court rejects the appeals,'' a statement said after the panel assessed ones filed by the prosecutor's offices and some of the families of the victims.
Under Belgian law, criminals can be freed after serving a third of their sentences, as long as they meet certain conditions.
Martin was to leave her jail in southern Brussels on Tuesday evening. She would make her way to southern Malonne, where she will live in a Clarisse convent and, in the words of her lawyer, seek atonement for her crimes.
Paul Marchal, whose daughter An was one of the victims of Dutroux, commented on the court's ruling, saying: "There is only one word for this. This is simply absurd."
Dutroux was jailed for life in 2004 for the kidnap and rape in the 1990s of six young and teenage girls of their murder.
Martin, 52, was sentenced that same year for helping Dutroux hold victims prisoners, and for complicity in the deaths of two girls, found starved to death in a locked cellar.
Complicity in deaths
Among the crowd in the courtroom earlier on Tuesday was Jean-Denis Lejeune, whose daughter Julie was left to die in Dutroux's cellar.
Lejeune's lawyer said the families would work to change the law and make sure victims get a bigger say.
|Marc Dutroux was jailed for life in 2004 for the kidnap and rape in the 1990s of six young and teenage girls [AFP]
"We will first have to ask the politicians to change the law and, secondly, we will have to go to Strasbourg,'' where the European Court of Human Rights can still have an impact, said lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier.
That process could take years, however.
Martin has depicted herself as a passive culprit of the psychopath Dutroux. But she is still blamed for aiding her husband as he went on a depraved and murderous spree, and she is particularly loathed for letting the two girls starve while Dutroux was imprisoned.
The former schoolteacher, who married Dutroux in 1983 and had three children by him before their divorce in 2003, had also served time in the 1980s for previous kidnappings.
Dutroux was an unemployed electrician and convicted pedophile on parole at the time of the crimes. He was convicted of imprisoning and raping six girls between the summers of 1995 and 1996, and was also found guilty of murdering two of them, who ranged in age from 8 to 19 years old.
Under Martin's successful parole ruling, a fifth bid for freedom, she was ordered to "keep her distance" from relatives of victims.
Several policemen were stationed near the Clarisse convent even before the verdict was announced on Tuesday and fluorescent graffiti near the convent protesting Martin's arrival was removed.
A sister at the convent said at the time of the initial court decision that had accepted the "challenge" of taking Martin in, while adding that "our hearts as women are troubled".
A previous attempt to place Martin in a French monastery fell foul of French authorities' fears over public order.