The surreal horror of a town called Arlon

Stephen Castle reports from Belgium on the child murder trial that has traumatised the country
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The Independent Online

As we wait for Belgium's most hated man to tell how he kidnapped, raped and incarcerated a string of young girls, the sound system at Arlon's criminal court springs into life. Before Marc Dutroux arrives, handcuffed, inside a bullet-proof glass cage, Viennese waltzes ring through the building.

Rarely can such a horrific set of crimes have been tried under such surreal conditions. Dutroux is accused of abducting and murdering two girls and of holding four others prisoner in an underground cell at his home. Two eight-year-olds apparently starved to death, abandoned in this dungeon while Dutroux languished in jail for car theft.

The media are billing it as Belgium's trial of the century (though the crimes were committed eight years ago), and the world's media have descended on the provincial town of Arlon, near the border with Luxembourg. The front of its modern court building is littered with TV stage sets. By autumn last year, all of Arlon's 160 hotel beds had been booked, with Belgian journalists first in the queue, followed by the Japanese.

Of more than 1,000 media representatives accredited to cover the trial, only 11 can enter the court and, of those, eight are from the Belgian media. That means that all but three of the international press, plus most of Belgium's press, are confined to two listening rooms - the salles d'écoute - each with three screens on the first floor of the court house.

Although the 440,000 pages of case evidence has leaked to the Belgian media and been plastered over the press here for more than a month, new rules have swung into action now the trial has started. In the salles d'écoute no tape-recorders, mobile phones or lap-top computers are permitted, and there are two security checks to ensure the rules are obeyed.

Nor is the view from here much good. Dutroux has exercised his right to privacy and insisted that his face is not photographed. Cameras relaying the court scene to the salles d'écoute are angled to conceal him behind a pillar in the bullet-proof glass box.

Nevertheless, watching Dutroux giving testimony is both horrific and fascinating. On Wednesday he spoke for around two and a half hours. His tone exuded the calm confidence of a man who enjoyed holding an audience in his grip.

For those unused to a continental court system, the hearing was bizarre. Dutroux did not plead to any of the charges but was asked to give his version of events, from his childhood to his arrest. Judge Stéphane Goux conducted the session with courtesy, rarely challenging the defendant's account. The man charged with Belgium's most terrible crimes ended his testimony by telling the judge: "I am at your disposition".

Dutroux presented himself as a victim of his uncaring parents, of a corrupt police force that framed him for earlier crimes of rape and violence, and of a paedophile network that ordered him to kidnap girls. He did not admit to having killed anyone, including an associate to whose murder he had earlier admitted. But he said he helped abduct four of the six girls, and that he had sex with three of them.

The notion of the defendant as victim was undermined by changes from Dutroux's earlier, written evidence and by the eerie sense that he was enjoying his notoriety.

His account blended the banal with the grotesque. Dutroux boasted of how he built and equipped the underground cell, and would then drop inrevelations or details so grotesque that they drew gasps from the court.

There were new allegations, for example, that two policemen helped with the abduction of 17-year-old An Marchal and 19-year-old Eefje Lambrecks, who were held at his home in Marcinelle, a suburb of Charleroi, and later found dead - buried alive while drugged, according to the prosecution.

There was also the matter-of-fact description of how he discovered the bodies of the two eight-year-olds, Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, when he emerged from prison (earlier statements claimed they were alive at this point) and stored them in a freezer.

Most troubling is the detail with which Dutroux described the sexual abuse committed by his associates and himself against their captives - particularly his two surviving victims.

The gratuitous detail is believed to have been added to intimidate Sabine Dardenne, then 12 and now aged 20. Ms Dardenne spent 79 days in the underground cell and is the central prosecution witness.

Some of the murdered victims' parents have boycotted the trial, describing it as a circus, but outside the court, the parents of An Marchal answered questions about their daughter's death, eight years ago and their need to know the truth about her last days.The man accused of killing her seems in no mood to put them out of their misery.