BRUSSELS – The ex-wife of a notorious pedophile who aided her husband's horrific abuse and murder of young girls — and who let two children starve to death while her husband was in jail — was approved Tuesday for early release from prison, infuriating the victims' parents and reopening a dark chapter in Belgian history.
Michelle Martin, who is now 52, received a 30-year prison term in 2004 for not freeing girls her then-husband Marc Dutroux held captive behind a secret door in their decrepit, dirty basement in Marcinelle, 40 miles south of Brussels.
Dutroux, 55, is serving a life term for kidnapping, torturing and abusing six girls in 1995 and 1996, and murdering four of them.
During those years, Dutroux also spent four months in jail for theft, leaving it to his wife to feed Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, a pair of friends imprisoned in the basement. Martin let the girls starve to death. They were 8 years old.
The case is one of the most sensational in recent Belgian history. Police failed to find the girls when they went to the house to investigate, even though they heard voices. And when the Supreme Court removed the investigating magistrate from the case for compromising his impartiality by attending a dinner organized by victims' parents, public anger exploded.
Some 300,000 people took to the streets in protest. The government teetered on the brink of collapse, prompting King Albert to call on it to reform the judiciary.
Even now, 16 years after the couple were arrested and eight years after their trial and sentencing, feelings in Belgium remain raw. Last year, when the court granted Martin early release on condition she work in a nunnery in France, the French government, cognizant of Belgian outrage, vetoed the arrangement.
Martin and Dutroux have been behind bars since they were arrested Aug. 12, 1996. But early release is common in Belgium. Under Belgian law, release is possible after one-third of a sentence is served, including credit for time spent in pre-trial detention. And, in Martin's case, a Belgian convent has now said it would take her in as part of the conditions of her release.
Parents of the couple's victims said they were shocked by the decision to release Martin early and accused the court of ignoring their feelings.
The ruling "came out of the blue," said Paul Marchal, whose 17-year-old daughter An, was killed by Dutroux. "I believed this would not happen. If Martin gets an early release, then who will they keep in prison?"
Jean Lambrecks, whose 19-year-old daughter, Eefje, also was killed by Dutroux, said he "was sure she would remain in prison, for she is as bad as Dutroux."
"She starved children to death," Lambrecks said. "She knew they were in the cellar."
Both An Marchal and Eefje Lambrecks, who were kidnapped on a camping trip to the Belgian seaside, are believed to have been drugged by Dutroux and buried alive.
A court in the city of Mons granted Martin's request for early release — her fifth in eight years — after her lawyers found a place for her at the Belgian convent and convinced the court she would not become a repeat offender. She will likely not be released for another two weeks, leaving the prosecution time to appeal the ruling.
Martin is no longer "the woman who was incarcerated in 1996," said her lawyer, Thierry Moreau. "She says her guilt will follow her to the grave."
Dutroux was a repeat offender whose first abuse conviction dated to 1986. For that initial conviction — for the rape of five girls — he was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison. But he served only three.
The girls held captive in his basement after his release ranged from 8 to 19 years old. The case revealed shocking lapses in law enforcement, notably two visits in 1995 by suspicious police who saw nothing awry in the basement, even though they heard voices, and ignored a letter from Dutroux's mother, who worried that her son was abusing young girls.
Under the terms of her release, Martin will have to remain at the convent and be assigned a task daily. Moreau, Martin's lawyer, said it took some time for the convent to agree to have her live there. But in the end they realized that no one else would take her in, he said.
"They accepted because their vocation is to welcome people nobody wants," he said.
Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin.