Sex Crimes Trial Finally Begins in Belgium

Marc Dutroux: Does that name mean anything to you? A little over 59 years ago in Belgium, in the southern Ardennes where the Battle of the Bulge was raging against Nazi forces, American checkpoints would ask suspicious-looking soldiers in American uniforms to identify Betty Grable as a touchstone to prove their nationality. Today the name “Marc Dutroux” could function in the same manner to identify Belgians. Outside that country little has been heard about the prosecution of Dutroux, which only started at the beginning of this week, other than some mention in the French and Dutch presses. Inside of Belgium, however, a full-fledged media storm is now raging over Dutroux’ crimes and those of his accomplices, and over their belated prosecution.

It is a huge case, with many facts, crimes, and personages involved. Naturally, the Belgian on-line press is also covering it extensively, and I’ve found the that the best special collections of past and current articles on the subject are provided by Antwerp’s Dutch-language De Standaard (but most articles here require an on-line subscription) and the French-language La Libre Belgique. Perhaps the best summary of what has gone on here is that a full seven-and-one-half years after their arrest, a band of criminals is finally being brought to trial in Belgium for gruesome crimes of abduction, sexual abuse, and forced imprisonment of young girls – and that all along the way the police, court, and investigative authorities have bumbled along in a manner that has severely tested Belgian citizens’ confidence in these institutions’ ability to fulfill their fundamental protective functions.


Unfortunately, a closer fix on the case is probably most-easily gained by considering it within a framework of its victims. These were three pairs of young girls, each pair abducted either together or within a short time of one another, and only one pair of which ultimately survived:

  • Julie Lejeune and Mélissa Russo, both eight years old at the time of their abduction in June, 1995, were taken to the dungeon which Dutroux built down in the cellar of his house in Marcinelle (in the southern, French part of Belgium called Wallonia) and abused. Then Dutroux was jailed in December, 1995, on charges of stealing cars. His house was routinely searched, and during that search the leader of the search party did hear girls’ voices coming from somewhere, but he concluded that they were just voices from outside on the street. The bodies of Julie and Mélissa were then discovered in August, 1996, when the whole case finally broke open and Dutroux and his accomplices were arrested, and more thorough-going searches of their residences could be carried out. Investigators concluded Julie and Mélissa had been left to starve in the dungeon as Dutroux went off to jail in December, 1995. (Dutroux claims that he left the responsibility for feeding the girls to his wife and co-defendent, Michelle Martin; but Martin claims to have been afraid to go into the underground cell where they were being held, chained to the wall.)
  • An Marchal (seventeen at the time) and Eefje Lambrecks (19 then), abducted by Dutroux and accomplice Michel Lelièvre on 22 August 1995 at the Belgian seaside town of Oostende. These two were also taken to Dutroux’ underground dungeon in Marcinelle, where for a time they were there also with Julie and Mélissa (although it seems that Dutroux confined each set of girls separately and did not let them know about the presence of the others). Eefje actually managed after two days to find her clothes (the girls were kept confined naked) and to climb through a window to the roof of Dutroux’ house and scream for help; no one heard or responded, and Dutroux managed to drag her back down again. Then, later, Eefje again escaped, this time naked onto the street, but Dutroux was again able to capture her. At some point in time (presumably before Dutroux went to jail in December, 1995) these two elder girls were transferred by Dutroux and his accomplices to the home in Jumet (another town in Wallonia) of another one of his accomplices, the Frenchman Bernard Weinstein, in whose garden their bodies were found at the begining of September, 1996. It’s still not known how they died; but it is known that both these girls’ bodies showed evidence of severe malnutrition.

By the way, upon getting out of jail from that stolen-cars charge in March, 1996, Dutroux not only took care of burying the bodies of Jullie and Mélissa, but he also took care of his accomplice Weinstein: He has confessed to drugging Weinstein with narcotics in a sandwich, and then burying him alive on the grounds of Weinstein’s house (although Dutroux later withdrew this confession).

  • Finally, there are Sabine Dardenne and Laetitia Delhez. The former was abducted by Dutroux on 28 May 1996 in her hometown of Kain, the latter on 9 August 1996 from her hometown of Bertrix. Both were of course taken to Dutroux’ dungeon in Marcinelle (now empty, since Julie and Mélissa had since died, while An and Eefje were either also already dead or being held at Weinstein’s home). Luckily, these girls survived with the final arrest of Dutroux on 13 August 1996 and Dutroux’ leading investigators to his house two days later to reveal his hidden dungeon-cell and the girls still locked up within.


That is all horrible enough, but it is hardly all there is to this case. Dutroux is described by De Standaard as a “steuntrekker,” maybe best translated as “welfare dependent,” which is no surprise since it seems he spent much of his life going in and out of jail. Most strikingly, he had already spent 1989 to 1992 in Belgian jails for raping five young girls, which one would think would prompt the authorities to keep an eye on him, especially when a witness shortly after his 1992 release reported that he seemed to be building some sort of confining enclosure in the basement of his Marcinelle house.

The experiences of the two investigating-judges assigned to the Dutroux case (Michel Bourlet and Jean-Marc Connerrotte) are also interesting. Both showed themselves willing to energetically pursue the investigation, although Bourlet in a television interview in August, 1996, somewhat enigmatically expressed his willingness to get to the bottom of things si on me laisse faire – i.e. “if they let me do it,” without providing further information about who those “they” might be. And then there is the “spaghetti-arrest” affair: In September, 1996, both Bourlet and Connerrotte were invited to a party by the grateful parents of the rescued girls, Sabine and Laetitia, where they had spaghetti for dinner. That was enough to move Julien Pierre, the lawyer at the time for Dutroux, to demand that these two main investigative judges be removed from the case due to bias against the defendant. Because of some obscure distinction in their official roles, Bourlet could not be removed from the case by the Belgian Openbaar Ministerie (basically the national Justice Department), but Connerotte could – and was.


This removal for a seemingly trivial cause of an investigating judge who clearly was acting very energetically on the case was the last straw for most Belgians. Indeed, many suspected that Connerotte was proceeding too energetically – too energetically, that is, for the taste of those many assumed did not want this case to be successfully prosecuted, ranging from rich Belgians for whom Dutroux was thought to be running a sex-slave operation (and Dutroux was certainly not above muttering the occasional reference to the Belgian “mafia”) to police officials who wanted to shove the entire case under the rug because of the way it showed them to be incompetent. But the Belgian people wanted justice, efficient and quick justice, and the firing occasioned by the “spaghetti-arrest” led to the famous Witte Mars (“White March”) of 20 October 1996, in which 300,000 citizens marched through Brussels’ streets, dressed largely in white and holding white balloons (as well as Christian crosses with pictures of the victimized girls placed at the center) to demand a competent prosecution of these crimes.

Whether they ultimately will receive satisfaction on “competent” has yet to be seen. But they certainly did not get any speedy or timely prosecution. In May of 1997 the federal Belgian court of Liège announced that the trial of Dutroux and his accomplices would begin by the fall of 1998; in February of 1999, the then-Minister of Justice, Tony van Parys, announced that the trial would begin sometime in the year 2000; and in August of 2001 that same court in Liège announced that the trial would begin in 2002. Of course, the trial finally began last Monday, 1 March 2004.

What is also sure is that the Belgian people certainly did not get the “competence” they have a right to expect from their police and courts while Dutroux and his band were committing their crimes and those same police were trying in vain to keep up. This much is clear from the two reports of the “Dutroux Commission,” set up to investigate the affair by the Belgian federal parliament in the wake of October, 1996’s Witte Mars. Of course, recruiting some notables and paying them to sit on a commission and investigate something is a standard politician’s method to deflect political heat on some issue, but the Dutroux Commission’s reports did give a frank, blunt assessment of the incompetence, lack of coordination, and sheer corruption nestling at the heart of the justice machinery of the Belgian state.


What remains unsure is whether those problems have in the meantime been sufficiently addressed and solved; to many, what is in their view a rather modest reorganization of the police and criminal investigation divisions hardly makes up any distance in improving things to the way they should be. The suicide on Bastille Day (14 July) 1999 of Huber Massay, chief prosecutor for the Dutroux case, will not have done much to restore confidence. That is even less true of the escape from custody Dutroux managed to bring about (by assaulting one of the officers guarding him and taking his gun, while the other had gone outside for a break) on 23 April 1998. Within hours 5,000 Belgian police were on the hunt for him; Belgium’s borders were closed, and the Belgian army immediately flew up 10 helicopters to aid in the search. What is more, the federal ministers of Justice and of Home Affairs both immediately resigned, as did LT General Willy de Ridder, commander of the federal police, and Belgian King Albert II even hurriedly flew back to the country from his vacation. Luckily, the most-hated man in Belgium was found later that day hiding in the woods of Chiny, some twelve kilometers away from the court facilities in Neufchâteau from which he had escaped. But this episode did even less to assuage the feeling many in Belgium had (and have) that Dutroux has friends in high places which, for one reason or another, do not want to see him prosecuted.

(And then, to add insult to injury, apparently parts of Dutroux investigative file were leaked to the press in January of this year, two months ago, which opens up the possibility of his defense lawyer appealing any conviction on the grounds of the revelation of information that should have been left confidential so as to avoid a “pre-judging” of the accused by the nation’s press.)


The real import of the Dutroux case, then, is not the sensationalist details of how some young girls were allegedly abducted and abused, but rather the crisis of confidence in the basic institutions of the Belgian state that it has brought to a head. Remember that Belgium is just about the last European state that you would want to have put to this test, in terms of the popular support the state enjoys – actually, as they say, NOT. Belgium has always been a rather artificial construction, created by and for the interests of outsiders rather than reflecting any sort of innate solidarity on the part of the people actually living within those borders. Indeed, it is best viewed as two states, Flemish and Walloon (respectively Dutch- and French-speaking – although they also speak German in a section of the country along the German border). In such a situation, it is the common institutions shared between the two communities, the federal institutions, that are particularly vulnerable to people asking “What’s their point?” since that same general question could be applied generally to the federal state itself which tries to bridge over and provide some common national ground to what are, culturally and historically, two very different communities. It was precisely those common federal investigative and police functions whose reputation has taken a severe beating here (quite probably fatal, in the eyes of many Belgians); for it is indeed true that some of the mistakes on the part of the police uncovered by the Dutroux Commission (although by no means all) were simply the result of the reluctance of police agencies across the internal linguistic frontier between Dutch and French to work with each other effectively.

Now, as De Standaard point out in an article, comes the Ultimate Test for Belgian Justice (subscription required). “The importance of the Dutroux trial can hardly be overestimated,” writes De Standaard’s author. “The public expects that the trial will finally bring general clarity” to the kidnapping of Laetitia and Sabine and to the deaths of the other four girls. If anything is seen to go wrong, then that could have serious political consequences in light of the elections scheduled for Flanders, and for the European Parliament, on the upcoming 13th of June. “Our country,” De Standaard concludes, with the eyes of the world directed at it, can allow itself no debacle in Arlon [the city in Wallonia where the trial is taking place].”

I think this is a serious but appropriate way to now approach the next in our series of treatments of national cultural in the Danish newspaper Politiken, namely of Belgium – or at least of the Dutch part, Flanders. With the start of Dutroux’ trial happening just a few days ago, the timing is simply right.

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