Dutroux inquiry bungled by police

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The Independent Online
Belgium's anguish looks set to continue unabated. The Untouchables - the 15 members of parliament who have for the past six months conducted a public inquiry into the handling of the country's child sex and murder scandals - yesterday officially exposed the nation's police and judiciary as dysfunctional and guilty of gross incompetence.

They also hinted strongly that the failures of the investigations into the Dutroux cases which came to light last August, triggering not just revulsion but widespread unrest, may be linked to a high-level political cover-up. At least four children, victims of a sex abuse ring allegedly operated by Marc Dutroux who is now facing murder charges, might have been found alive if police and magistrates had done their jobs, the inquiry concluded.

Feuds and rivalry between the country's different police and judicial divisions prevented them from working together, the report said. Not only was there a "flagrant failure" to pass information between prosecutors and police but investigators ignored vital leads, used insufficient resources badly, and showed disdain for the families of the victims of missing children. The parents of nine-year-old Loubna Benaissa abducted in 1992 and whose corpse was found underneath a Brussels petrol station last month were told to join the queue "as if they had come to report a missing handbag" the report said.

While most Belgians would not be surprised to learn that their police force is incompetent, the findings appear to bolster more grave suspicions of corruption and political interference. The committee "finds it difficult not to conclude ... that Dutroux and others might have received high level protection".

The inquiry's report calls for the dismantlement of the existing police and criminal justice structures, the establishment of a single federal police force and for police retraining. If acted on, the findings, to be debated by parliament today and tomorrow, could revolutionise the way Belgium is administered. Failure to heed them will almost certainly trigger unrest and could bring down Jean Luc Dehaene's Christian Democrat- led coalition government.

In September the committee is due to report on its findings on allegations that Dutroux and his associates enjoyed high-level protection and perhaps even the collaboration of a politically influenced judiciary.

Suspicions that corrupt politicians or magistrates shielded Dutroux emerged from evidence heard by the inquiry alleging that the convicted child rapist's close associate, Michel Nihoul, a Brussels businessman who allegedly organised orgies, had close contacts with police. It has also been established that the gendarmerie mounted a surveillance operation on Dutroux several years ago but failed to detect his activities. Police searched his home but failed to find eight-year-olds Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, despite an officer's reports of hearing children's voices.

Revelations about the authorities' handling of the paedophile scandals have incensed Belgians. Almost 300,000 took to the streets last October.

The victims' families have become heroic figures and their agitation for reform of the judicial and police system has spawned a grassroots movement known as "white committees". These committees are the focus for alliances between the parents, their supporters and workers from the Clabecq steelworks and Renault car plants who believe that unemployment and social ills are also a function of the corruption and nepotism which appear to permeate the political and legal establishment.