Belgium erupts in judge's defence

A surge of spontaneous public emotion swept across normally placid Belgium yesterday after the sacking of the crusading judge who led the inquiry into the country's child sex and murder scandals. This triggered strikes in cities and towns throughout the country, protests angrily directed at the state itself.

The government insisted that the removal of Judge Jean-Marc Connerotte, a national hero since his investigating team rescued two children from child rapist Marc Dutroux's cellar in August, will not deflect the inquiries.

But it seems to have been the last straw for a people sickened by the Dutroux case and whose confidence in the institutions that govern them has been shattered by it and a series of corruption scandals.

Factories and offices were at a standstill as thousands of employees stopped work in protest at the judge's sacking. Public transport came to a halt. Seven hundred workers at a Volkswagen plant near Brussels marched on the city's Palais de Justice, the imposing symbol of the judiciary in the centre of town. Hundreds of demonstrators staged a sit-in there, some in tears, others vowing to go on hunger strike. "He was the only person we trusted. The workers have no confidence in anyone else," said union representative Hedwin De Clercq who led the march.

Firemen in Charleroi, the birthplace of Dutroux, turned their water cannon on the city's court building to "clean up the judiciary".

In nearby Liege, the fire brigade sounded the sirens of their engines in front of the city's courts and hundreds of work colleagues of Gino Russo, father of one of Dutroux's eight-year-old victims, walked off the factory floor. Bus drivers throughout Wallonia, Belgium's French-speaking region, abandoned their vehicles in the streets. In Dutch-speaking Flanders, supporters of Judge Connerotte staged a sit-in on the steps of the Antwerp law courts.

Connerotte, known affectionately as le petit juge was held by the High Court on Monday to have compromised his impartiality when he attended a fund-raising event organised by a support group for victims of child sex abuse. He was targeted by lawyers defending Dutroux after being photographed eating a free bowl of spaghetti and accepting a small gift.

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