BELGIUM: Today's trial of Marc Dutroux in the southern Belgian town of Arlon marks the climax of a trauma that has haunted Belgium for almost eight years, prompting an overhaul of the justice system and contributing to the fall of Jean-Luc Dehaene's government in 1999, writes Denis Staunton in Brussels
Dutroux is accused of kidnapping and raping six girls between 1995 and 1996 and of murdering two of the four girls who died.
Public horror at the crimes turned to outrage at the authorities' handling of the investigation when it emerged that police failed to follow up a number of leads that could have prevented the deaths of at least two of Dutroux's alleged victims.
Dutroux's spectacular escape from prison in 1998 heightened the impression of official incompetence, and the delay in bringing the case to trial has caused public disquiet.
Meanwhile, rumours of an official cover-up persist and an opinion poll this week found that two out of three Belgians believe that Dutroux is being protected by "very highly placed people".
After the discovery of 12-year-old Sabine Dardenne and 14-year-old Laetitia Delhez in his basement on August 15th, 1996, Dutroux led investigators to the remains of four other girls.
Prosecutors say that Dutroux snatched Sabine and Laetitia from the street and imprisoned them in his makeshift dungeon. Sabine had been there for almost three months, during which time Dutroux is alleged to have raped her repeatedly, occasionally rewarding her with chocolate bars.
"I want to look Dutroux in the eyes and to show him that, despite everything he did to me, I have not gone mad. And he has not conquered me," Ms Dardenne told Belgian television last week.Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, two eight-year-old friends who disappeared together in June 1995, were found buried in Dutroux's back garden at another of his houses, in Sars-La-Bouissière. An Marchal, aged 19, and Eefje Lambreks, aged 17, who had gone missing after attending a seaside hypnotist's show, were found at another house owned by Dutroux.
Police also found the body of Bernard Weinstein, an accomplice Dutroux has admitted killing. Dutroux claims that Weinstein's failure to feed Julie and Melissa while Dutroux was serving a short sentence for car theft led to their deaths by starvation.
Soon after Dutroux's arrest, it became clear that police had missed numerous clues and ignored information that might have saved the lives of some of his alleged victims.
An unqualified electrician and mechanic, Dutroux spent six years in prison between 1986 and 1992 for raping five young women. On his release, he claimed that his conviction made it impossible for him to find work and was given a monthly state benefit of about €2,000. Despite this modest income, Dutroux owned seven houses around southern Belgium.
Soon after his release, girls began to disappear in neighbourhoods near where he had houses. In 1993, an associate told police that Dutroux had offered him money to kidnap girls. Two years later, Dutroux's mother wrote to the police telling them that her son was keeping girls in one of his empty houses.
The police ignored both warnings, partly because rival police forces were conducting parallel investigations but did not share information. Dutroux's house in Charleroi was searched twice during the hunt for missing children but nothing was found, despite the fact that, during one of the searches, two girls were imprisoned in the basement.
In the end, Dutroux was arrested after an elderly nun with a penchant for memorising number plates remembered part of the registration number of a white van seen near the scene of Laetitia Delhez's disappearance. Police traced the van to Dutroux and, after three days of interrogation, he led them to the basement dungeon where Laetitia and Sabine were being held.
Public anger at the handling of the Dutroux case reached its height in October 1996 when Jean-Marc Connerotte, the investigating magistrate who oversaw Dutroux's arrest, was taken off the investigation. Connerotte's superiors said his attendance at a fundraising dinner for missing children meant that he was no longer impartial.
On October 20th, 1996, 300,000 people took part in a silent march through Brussels, many wearing white or carrying white balloons. Nobody carried placards or shouted slogans but the message was unmistakable - Belgians no longer trusted their legal system to protect their children or to bring perpetrators to justice.
The prime minister, Mr Jean-Luc Dehaene, acknowledged that the protest could not be ignored, and even King Albert II backed calls for a reform of the justice system.
The following year, a parliamentary inquiry concluded that the murdered girls might not have died if the police investigation had not been so incompetent. It recommended a restructuring of the police force into two forces rather than three. These reforms were approved in 1998 but not before the Belgian authorities experienced their worst humiliation - Dutroux's escape from custody.
In April 1998, Dutroux was taken from his high-security prison to a nearby town to consult files relating to his defence case. On the way, he overpowered a guard, stole his gun and ran into a forest, where he was re-arrested three hours later. The escape prompted the resignation of Belgium's police chief and of the justice and interior ministers.
Belgian justice is seldom swift but the delay of almost eight years in bringing Dutroux to trial is unusual by any standards (most criminal cases come to trial within two years after arrest). The authorities insist that, not only is the case remarkably complex, with more than 400,000 pages of written evidence and almost 500 witnesses expected to be called, but that it was important to allow other, linked cases to be completed to avoid the risk of a mistrial.
Many Belgians suspect the delay was deliberate or that the investigation was hampered by "very highly placed people" who are helping Dutroux. Joining Dutroux on trial are his ex-wife Michelle Martin; an unemployed former drug addict, Michel Lelievre; and a businessman, Michel Nihoul.
Rumours that Dutroux has friends in high places centre on his association with Nihoul, who is alleged to have organised sex parties attended by senior politicians and business people. Some conspiracy theories allege that Dutroux was part of a paedophile network that stretched into the upper reaches of government and even to the royal family.
The prosecution insists there is no evidence to suggest he is anything other than what it calls an "isolated pervert". The defence will argue, however, that Dutroux did not kidnap the girls for his own purposes but was acting on behalf of others.
The atmosphere of suspicion surrounding the trial has been heightened by the mysterious deaths of some potentially key witnesses. Simon Poncelet, one of the investigating policemen, was shot dead while on duty. Bruno Tagliaferro, a scrap merchant who planned to testify against Dutroux, was poisoned, and his wife was burned to death in her bed. A sex club owner associated with Nihoul was shot dead, and Hubert Massa, a state prosecutor involved in the case, committed suicide.