Belgian Pedophilia-Murder-Corruption Trial Opens

Belgium's public enemy Number One and three co-defendants went on trial Monday for kidnapping, abusing and killing young girls in a mid-1990s crime spree that shocked the country — as much for the inept police work as for the depravity of the acts.

The jury trial of Marc Dutroux (search), 47, his ex-wife and two other defendants opened with the selection of a 12-member jury amid tight security and intense attention from Belgian and foreign media. The trial will likely run until mid-May.

In a letter to the VTM television network on the trial's eve, Dutroux said he was part of a criminal network with tentacles in Belgian law enforcement.

He implicated co-defendant Michel Nihoul (search), a 62-year-old Brussels lawyer, as a linchpin — more grist for the mill of those who say Dutroux was part of a wider organization.

"Of course it happens often that defendants accuse each other," said court spokesman Nico Snelders.

Dutroux' trial focuses on six girls, two of them only eight years old, who were randomly kidnapped and abused in a cell behind a custom-built door in a cellar in one of Dutroux's homes.

Four died and two were rescued in a case that showed how shoddy police let a convicted child rapist operate unchecked. A parliamentary probe found that rival police units hindered the search for Dutroux.

Investigating magistrates have bickered over whether he was a loner or part of a pedophilia network. One magistrate was even removed for showing bias when he attended a benefit event for the victims' families.

Amplifying law enforcement's ineptness was Dutroux' escape April 23, 1998, when he grabbed a police guard's gun. He was arrested three hours later.

The ex-electrician was free on parole for abduction and raping young women, including one minor, in the mid-1990s when the kidnappings, alleged rapes and killings took place.

Dutroux allegedly began raping girls as young as eight, helped by his wife, Michelle Martin, 44, who sometimes drove the kidnap van, and two others, Michel Lelievre, 32, and Michel Nihoul, 62.

Hundreds of police deployed in Arlon (search), a sleepy southern Belgian town where the trial opened in a brand new, barricaded courthouse whose defendants' box is equipped with bulletproof glass.

The trial before Judge Stefane Goux opened with the selection of a 12-member jury and 12 alternate jurors. Tuesday will be spent on a reading of the charges and on Wednesday the defendants will likely enter their pleas, officials said.

In all, some 500 witnesses will be heard. The trial will likely run until May 20. The case file stretches across 450,000 pages.

On Aug. 13, 1996, Dutroux was arrested on a tip-off and police found two girls, Sabine Dardenne and Laetitia Delhez, alive in his cellar. The bodies of four girls were found in backyard graves soon after. Two of them are believed to have been drugged and buried alive.

Dutroux is charged with three murders but is expected to plead guilty to only one — that of an accomplice, Bernard Weinstein (search), whose body was found in a yard next to one of Dutroux' seven decrepit homes in 1996.

He is also expected to plead guilty to kidnapping Dardenne, then 12, and Delhez, then 14, in May and August, 1996, respectively. These two girls survived Dutroux's dungeon. An Marchal and Eefje Lambrecks who were kidnapped on the Belgian coast Aug. 22, 1996, when they were 17 and 18 respectively, died.

Paul Marchal, the father of An, has long been unhappy with police work. "I hope that the trial will bring out more of the truth," he said outside the courthouse.

Dutroux's ex-wife, Michelle Martin, is accused of conspiracy in the kidnappings. Lelievre faces various kidnapping, rape and drugs possession charges. Nihoul faces charges of kidnapping Laetitia Delhez.

No murder charges are filed in the deaths of two other girls — Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, both eight, when they were taken June 24, 1995. They reportedly starved to death in Dutroux's basement dungeon.

As details of the kidnappings, rapes and murders became known in 1996 — as well as details of the poor police work — 300,000 people demonstrated in Brussels to demand government action.