Belgium's biggest trial in living memory opens in the southeastern town of Arlon on Monday when accused pedophile Marc Dutroux appears in court, some seven years after the crimes that horrified the country.
A leaflet shows four girls murdered by Dutroux.
It was a case that traumatized an entire country. While Belgium is not immune to serious crime, the police investigation into the kidnapping and raping of six girls and the murder of four of them, shocked the nation to its core.
When self-confessed killer and child rapist Marc Dutroux (photo) was apprehended for the crimes, the whole of Belgium knew that things would get a lot worse before any closure and justice could be found.
The harrowing details of the case will begin to emerge from Monday when Belgium's biggest trial in living memory opens in the southeastern town of Arlon, some seven years after the crimes of which Dutroux is accused.
Theories of protection likely to resurface
While the evidence will bring back hideous memories for those involved and stir disgust and hatred across the country once more, the case is likely to re-ignite the flames of rumor that Dutroux, who will appear with three co-defendants during the trial, was sheltered and offered high-level protection, a reason expressed by some as to why it took so long to track him down.
However, a recent poll carried out in Belgium shows that almost nine in 10 of the nation's citizens doubted that the truth would emerge from the proceedings, such is the belief that a wider conspiracy was at work.
A skeptical population is not convinced that a network of pedophiles suspected of involvement in the abduction of the girls was composed of just the four accused, Dutroux and his three co-defendants -- his wife, Michelle Martin, a drifter, Michel Lelièvre, and Michel Nihoul, a police informant.
Protests brought down the government
At the time, the public was enraged and disgusted. The resulting protests and spiraling hysteria threw up many theories, including a popular belief that the pedophile ring that Dutroux was allegedly part of included high-ranking officials and politicians.
The case provoked such public outrage that it contributed to the defeat of former Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene's government in 1999. Some 300,000 people joined the victims' parents in one of the biggest demonstrations in the country's history, known as the "White March" after the white clothes and balloons of the protesters.
Dutroux's defense team are likely to present the accused as members of a wider organization in a bid to deflect the severity of the charges away from single individuals. The defense will try to convince the jury that Dutroux did not kidnap the girls for himself. The prosecuting counsel say they have no such evidence and have said they will ignore the theory of a sex ring, since a separate probe has yet to prove it existed. Dutroux is expected to plead guilty on some counts but he denies kidnapping the two eight-year-olds and murdering any girl.
Xavier Magnee, one of Dutroux's lawyers, does not expect the accused to get a fair trial, saying his client has already been judged by society given the amount of publicity his crimes have received. "Finding a jury that does not already have an opinion is obviously impossible," he told reporters. "If I plead poorly, he will get life. If I plead well, he will get life."
Official bungling enraged citizens
Belgians were not only revolted by the crimes themselves but also by the police and judiciary incompetence during the search for the girls, some of whom had been missing for a year. Police admitted having had Dutroux, a convicted child rapist, under surveillance, but never told those involved in the search for the girls.
They had searched his house and heard the girls' cries but failed to find the false door that hid the tiny cells. Parliamentary inquiries later revealed that rivalries within the police force and justice system had split the investigation into parallel probes, none of which was sharing information.
Horrible facts beyond doubt
Despite the conspiracy theories and garbled messages from both justice and police sources, some events are without doubt. Dutroux's arrest in August 1996 was followed by the discovery of two victims -- 12-year-old Sabine Dardenne and 14-year-old Laetitia Delhez -- cowering naked in a makeshift cell below one of his homes, near the city of Charleroi. Dutroux later showed police where the bodies of four more girls and a suspected accomplice were buried in the back yards of two other houses. Two of the victims, 8-year-olds Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, had died of starvation, apparently while Dutroux was being held in custody on an unrelated charge.