A Belgian court finds Marc Dutroux guilty of a series of abductions and murders of teenage girls that rocked Belgium for the greater part of the last decade and set the stage for the country's trial of the century.
Child killer Marc Dutroux in the courtroom in Arlon, Belgium
After days of deliberations, the jury in the case against Belgian child rapist-killer Marc Dutroux convicted the 47-year-old on numerous counts of murder, kidnap and rape in 1995 and 1996.
Dutroux could now face a sentence of life imprisonment for numerous counts of murder. The Court of Justice in the southern Belgian city of Arlon issued a verdict on Thursday convicting Dutroux of killing two girls, one 17 and the other 19, during the mid-1990s. The judge in the case also said Dutroux had killed his former accomplice in a child-kidnapping ring, Bernard Weinstein.
Paul Marchal, right, and his wife Betty Marchal, left, leaf through a newspaper with Marc Dutroux on the cover in front of the Palace of Justice in Arlon, Belgium, Monday March 1, 2004.
The 12-member jury also concluded after long deliberations that Dutroux had led a criminal ring that had been responsible for the kidnapping, deprivation of liberty and rape of a total of six girls. Four of the girls -- Julie Lejeune, Melissa Russo, An Marchal and Eefje Lambrecks died while being held in captivity by Dutroux. Throughout the trial, Dutroux denied responsibility for the girl's gruesome deaths. During the closing arguments in his trial, Dutroux claimed a pedophile ring forced him to kidnap the girls. But despite speculation at the start of the trial, evidence never materialized that such a ring existed.
On Thursday afternoon, the jury continued to read its numerous verdicts to Dutroux. If convicted on all counts, he will likely be sentenced to life in prison. But a sentence will first be handed down after further deliberations.
Dutroux's former wife, Michelle Martin, and his accomplice, Michel Lelievre, are also expected to be given stiff prison sentences. Though not convicted of murder, the court held Martin responsible for the deaths of Julie and Melissa, who starved while Dutroux sat in jail.
Though it convicted Dutroux on Thursday, the court's three-judge panel acquitted businessman Michel Nihoul, who also stood accused as Dutroux's accomplice, after the jury failed to convict him. Prosecutors believed Nihoul was the lynchpin of a pedophile gang, and took part in several abductions of girls. But the judges ordered the jurors to reconsider whether the 63-year-old convicted fraudster was guilty of complicity in the crimes.
The trial of the century
The trial, which began on March 1, has sent shock waves far beyond Belgium's borders, is now approaching the end. The jury on Thursday issued verdicts on 243 charges against Dutroux and his three co-defendants. During the case, the court heard from more than 500 witnesses. Pleas from the co-plaintiffs, defense and prosecutors alone lasted more than 75 hours.
Sabine Dardenne survived 80 days of imprisonment in the cellar dungeon of Marc Dutroux came face to face with the convicted child rapist for the first time since 1996 while giving her testimony at the Court of Justice in Arlon, Belgium.
Dominating headlines in Belgium and Europe for the greater part of the past decade, the Dutroux scandal launched a serious domestic crisis in Belgium during the 1990s, and the images of the two girls who survived their kidnappings, Sabine Dardenne (photo) and Laetitia Delhez, and were found in the cellar of Dutroux's house were broadcast and printed all over the world.
The case has haunted Belgians since Dutroux's 1996 arrest. The crimes not only made their country synonymous with pedophilia in the world's eyes but also raised questions in people's minds about the possible complicity of police and politicians. Given the bungled investigation into the missing girls, many Belgians came to believe Dutroux worked under the protection of a child sex ring whose members included influential people. Dutroux has played on that widely held belief, insisting that he was a reluctant accomplice to the ring.
The case brought 320,000 Belgians on to the streets of Brussels at the time in the biggest demonstration ever seen in the country. They were protesting against the bungling of authorities. Two government ministers and a police chief resigned.