There's something rotten in the state of Belgium

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The Independent Online
THE NEWS that Arkan, Slobodan Milosevic's paramilitary henchman, has been making inquiries about relocating to Belgium came as a surprise to some, but not, perhaps, the families of the victims of Marc Dutroux.

For an indicted war criminal casting around for a place to lie low, where better to look than the country in which a serial child rapist and murderer operated with impunity for years?

Dutroux, finally arrested in August 1996 in connection with the deaths of four young girls and the abduction of two others, is still on remand. And three years after 350,000 Belgians took to the streets of Brussels to demand urgent reforms to the police and judicial system, legal wrangling means there is no trial date.

The latest twist in this dark tale of how Belgium's missing children were betrayed by official incompetence, or something more sinister, came last week. In a scene worthy of a Maigret novel - set, appropriately, in Liege, author Georges Simenon's home town - Hubert Massa, the 51-year- old state prosecutor in charge of the Dutroux case, ate dinner with his wife and two children, retired to his study and shot himself in the head.

The suicide has reopened painful wounds. As well as prosecuting Dutroux, Massa was also overseeing the investigation into the mafia-style assassination of Andre Cools, a former deputy prime minister, gunned down by contract killers in Liege in 1991. That inquiry gave rise to a "bribes for contracts" scandal which led to the conviction last year of the ex-Nato secretary general Willy Claes, a former Belgian minister.

Did Massa crack under the very public strain of trying to find answers? Was he aware of a political cover-up: "Suicide of a lawyer who knew too much" was the front page answer offered by La Derniere Heure.

Certainly, the Dutroux case must have weighed heavily on him. Belgium is a comfortable place, with enviable education and health services and little petty crime, yet so vast is police and judicial ineptitude that an unemployed electrician known to the authorities as a convicted paedophile could operate an international ring with little interference. The shame that Belgians are coming to terms with is not simply that Dutroux existed, but that the authorities failed to launch a proper investigation into the disappearance of his victims. Rival police forces in the linguistically divided state failed to communicate. Files were left to gather dust, crucial leads were ignored and parents dismissed as meddlers.

The body of 17-year-old An Marchal was found buried in the back yard of one of Dutroux's homes, along with that of her friend, Eefje Lambrechts, a week after the remains of eight-year-olds Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo were dug up. Both had starved to death in a dungeon built by Dutroux.

Police searched Dutroux's house when he went to jail for car theft in 1995. They heard voices but failed to find Julie and Melissa,locked in the cellar. A neighbour repeatedly told police that Dutroux had offered him pounds 2,500 to help him kidnap young girls.

The Dutroux revelations, led by the press, victims' parents and a handful of crusading MPs, exposed the rottenness at the heart of Belgium. They highlighted the extent to which an artificial nation of French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings, held together by the threads of an inflexible system of power sharing and a leaden bureaucracy, was unable to respond to a national crisis.

Language is a major factor. The need to maintain an even balance between Dutch and French speakers means there is a legal requirement to divide everything from the library books to government portfolios. The fate of the abducted children slipped between separate and competing police forces.

Political patronage and corruption are rife. A complacent political class, confident of always being returned to power in one of Belgium's coalitions, washed its hands of responsibility. It was not until Dutroux's farcical prison break last year that any government minister was forced to resign.

The immediate question in the wake of Massa's suicide is whether two of Belgium's biggest criminal investigations can come to trial in the foreseeable future. Massa was central to both investigations.Fears are growing that Marc Dutroux could walk free before the trial begins, on a technicality linked to his length of time in custody.