Marc Dutroux blamed a police-backed paedophile network and his estranged wife yesterday for the gruesome deaths of four girls abducted, drugged, abused and held captive at his Belgian home.
In 150 minutes of extraordinary testimony, Mr Dutroux claimed policemen helped kidnap and rape two teenage victims. The court in Arlon gasped as he also described how he stored the emaciated bodies of two eight-year-olds in a freezer before burying them, and gave explicit details of sex acts with one of his surviving victims.
Mr Dutroux spoke in a calm, assured tone, presenting himself as the victim of corrupt police, a dangerous criminal network and his uncaring parents.
His testimony was a chilling combination of the grotesque and the banal. One moment he was boasting of his practical skills in building an underground cell at his home in Marcinelle, then he was describing his sexual abuse of a 12-year-old. Six girls were drugged and held captive in his house in Marcinelle, four in the underground dungeon. Two of them survived.
Only when prompted by the judge did Mr Dutroux concede that the deaths of four girls, including the two aged eight, were "truly regrettable". He added: "Four people can never come back. I cannot repair that. Had I not agreed to do what I did they would probably be alive. I cannot accept all the blame, but my part of the responsibility I accept."
Mr Dutroux appeared behind bullet-proof glass, seated 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. Now aged 47, Mr Dutroux is accused of multiple counts of rape, the murder of two of his teenage victims and of an accomplice, Bernard Weinstein (thought to have been buried alive), as well as holding six girls prisoner, two of whom died while he was in prison.
Although Mr Dutroux did not enter a formal plea, he said he had abducted four girls and admitted having sex with three of them, but he denied murder.
Yet his version of events only confused an already muddy picture, and he was comprehensively contradicted later by Ms Martin. With the four defendants blaming each other, the jury will have to determine which, if any, can be believed.
In a departure from previous written evidence, Mr Dutroux accused Mr Nihoul of being the mastermind behind the abductions, and the link to an extensive paedophile network. Earlier written testimony had been "stuffed with lies" to protect his estranged wife, he said.
Mr Dutroux portrayed himself as a victim, saying his childhood and adolescence had been miserable, and he claimed he was framed for offences, including child rape, for which he was jailed for 13 years.
He denied any role in the abduction of the two eight-year-old victims, Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo. He had, he said, returned home one day in 1995 to find them in the house with Ms Martin, Mr Nihoul, Mr Lelièvre and his other accomplice, Bernard Weinstein.
He said he had been shocked to learn that the girls had been abducted for a paedophile network, adding: "At the time, homosexuality and paedophilia was the same for me. It was Chinese to me." Mr Dutroux even claimed that the construction of the underground cell was for the protection of the pair of schoolfriends from Mr Nihoul's network and said he warned off one accomplice who had sexually abused Melissa.
In December 1995, Mr Dutroux was sent to jail for another offence, for apparently abandoning the two eight-year-olds to starve in their subterranean cell. Mr Dutroux said the schoolfriends were dead when he emerged from prison four months later - another change of previous evidence - and that their bodies were stored for more than a week in a freezer before being buried.
Mr Dutroux said two unnamed policemen and Mr Lelièvre helped abduct An Marchal, aged 17, and Eefje Lambrecks, aged 19, near Ostende. On the instructions of Mr Nihoul, he said, the girls were drugged, raped and taken to Mr Dutroux's home in Marcinelle. He denied murdering them, saying that they were taken away by Weinstein, but he admitted having sex with Eefje with whom he claimed an attachment. "It is a real shame this girl is dead. I think this is a catastrophe," he said in an isolated moment of regret.
Finally, Mr Dutroux admitted helping kidnap Sabine Dardenne, 12 at the time, and Laetitia Delhez, then 14, the two surviving victims. He gave graphic details of how he abused both girls, forcing one to perform oral sex on a dozen occasions. She was given a sweet afterwards each time, Mr Dutroux said, to remove the taste.
Ms Martin, giving evidence later, rejected Mr Dutroux's account, saying her estranged husband had admitted kidnapping the two eight-year-olds and complained they were too young. Ms Martin says she was too scared to open the underground cellar but that Melissa and Julie were alive when Mr Dutroux was freed from prison. They died later, Ms Martin said, adding that Mr Dutroux told her: "Julie is in the freezer."
She also said Mr Dutroux had admitted killing An and Eefje, and she concluded her evidence by expressing regret to the girls' parents for her role.
Georges-Henri Beauthier, representing Laetitia Delhez, added: "It is cowardice. To hear that he [Dutroux] did nothing is untenable for us." He said he was going to prove the existence of a criminal network, but using evidence not given by Dutroux.
Frédéric Clément de Cléty, for Mr Nihoul, said: "It is an insult to the family of the victims," he said. "This morning we have had an extraordinary example of the man Dutroux is and how he lies and manipulates."
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