A conviction at least, but truth about his accomplices might never be uncovered

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The Independent Online

After 15 weeks of harrowing testimony, one of the darkest episodes in modern Belgian history drew to a close yesterday as the country's most infamous criminal, Marc Dutroux, was convicted of kidnapping, incarcerating, raping and murdering a string of young girls.

Jurors heard how two eight-year-olds starved to death in Dutroux's cellar, and watched as the serial rapist and killer was confronted by his two surviving victims.

From behind bullet-proof glass, Dutrouxappeared contradictory and manipulative. Cold and egocentric, there was little sign of remorse, even when he offered the most grotesque of detail. Yet the trial failed to produce new evidence to settle the central question: was Dutroux a lone predator or part of a wider network?

It was on 15 August, 1996, that two naked teenaged girls were freed from a cell beneath a three-storey house in Marcinelle, a suburb of the southern Belgian city of Charleroi, to tell a story that sent shock waves through Belgium. Sabine Dardenne and Laetitia Delhez had been abducted, drugged, raped and held so well-concealed that the police needed Dutroux's help to find the cell. The two initially refused to leave their prison; they had been convinced by Dutroux that he was protecting them.

As the extent of the crimes emerged, and the bodies of four missing girls were disinterred, public outrage grew, leading to massive street demonstrations across Belgium. Over the past 15 weeks the evidence has served to underline the scale of the crimes and the failure of the country's police and judicial system.

In the dock Dutroux sat next to his co-defendants, Michelle Martin, his now-estranged second wife, Michel Lelièvre, a drifter and drug addict, and Michel Nihoul, a businessman, fixer and police informant.

Perhaps the most harrowing testimony concerned the deaths of the schoolfriends Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, both aged eight, who vanished on 24 June, 1995 near their home town of Grace-Hollogne, near Liege. The youngsters were drugged and abused, before starving to death in the underground cell while Dutroux served a jail term for another offence. Ms Martin, who was not living in the house at the time, said she was too scared to open the cellar to give the children food, although she fed two dogs at the house.

Precisely when they died remains unclear. In his statement to the court, Dutroux said they were dead when he emerged from prison. Both Dutroux and his former wife agreed on one detail that brought gasps from the courtroom: their bodies were stored for more than a week in a freezer before being buried.

While the eight-year-olds were being held, Dutroux abducted An Marchal, 17, and Eefje Lambrecks, 19, saying that two unidentified police officers had helped in the kidnapping near Ostende. This unproved allegation suggested the local police were turning a blind eye, or even participating in, a prostitution and drugs ring co-ordinated by Nihoul.

But the more extreme theories, linking Dutroux via Nihoul to some of the elite of Belgian society, were never substantiated. And yesterday, after the jury split on the issue, Nihoul was cleared of taking part in the kidnapping, dealing a blow to the theory that Dutroux was a pawn in an larger network.

Once in the house at Marcinelle, the teenagers were chained up for much of the day, sedated with drugs and raped. Eefje, however, made two escape attempts, and, perhaps because they were proving difficult to control, both girls were drugged then buried alive. A similar technique was used in another of Dutroux's killings, of a French accomplice, Bernard Weinstein, who was buried alive after being tortured to discover a stash of cash.

Dutroux was unable to deny his crimes against Ms Dardenne, then aged 12, and Ms Delhez, then 14, both of whom confronted their former tormentor. The dignified appearance of the young women proved one of the few positive moments in the trial, as they demonstrated their determination not to be intimidated by their former tormentor, and their success in rebuilding their lives.

Otherwise this trial hardly provided the catharsis that the nation needed. While the credibility of the defendants was comprehensively destroyed, the defence team was able to raise justifiable questions about the reliability of a Belgian judicial system, which took eight years to bring the case to trial. Dutroux's lawyer pointed out that 6,000 hair samples, found in the basement cellar where some of the victims were held, had led to the discovery of 25 "unknown" DNA profiles.

These were put to one side in the interests of pursuing the case against the four accused, but this allowed Dutroux's defence attorney to argue: "There were people in that cellar that are not now accused."

Before the trial, almost nine out of 10 Belgians said that they thought the truth about the crimes would probably never be known. Although Dutroux has been convicted, few will have changed their minds.

THE VICTIMS

Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, both aged eight, went missing near their home at Grace-Hollogne, close to Liege, on 24 June 1995. They were held in captivity in a cellar of one of Dutroux's homes in Marcinelle, a suburb of Charleroi. Their bodies were later found buried in the back garden of one of Dutroux's other houses, in Sars-la-Buissiere, on 16 August 1996.

An Marchal, aged 19, and Effe Lambrecks, aged 17, were kidnapped on 22 August 1995, when their tram stopped at Ostende. Both were drugged and taken to Marcinelle, where they were held upstairs, chained for most of the day and raped. Eventually they were drugged, then buried alive by Dutroux. Their remains were found on 3 September 1996.

Sabine Dardenne, then aged 12, and Laetitia Delhez, then aged 14, are the two surviving victims. Sabine disappeared on 28 May 1996 and was raped repeatedly in a hidden cell. Laetitia was snatched from outside a public swimming pool near Neufchateau. A teenager had memorised part of Dutroux's number plate and led the police to Dutroux. Both were rescued on 14 August 1996.

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