BRUSSELS – Even after all these years, the mere mention of the name "Marc Dutroux" can wipe the smile off the face of almost any Belgian.
And now that the convicted pedophile and killer's ex-wife — an accomplice who let two of his victims starve to death — is on the verge of release, Belgium is being forced to relive some of its darkest moments.
On Tuesday, the nation's highest court will likely approve granting Michelle Martin conditional freedom, even though she served little more than half of the 30-year sentence she was given for her part in the mid-1990s kidnappings, rapes and killings. One of Belgium's most loathed criminals could walk free within hours or days afterward.
For many in this country, memories that had been largely buried are now resurfacing.
"We are scared for our children, obviously, for the other children as well," said Celine Doignies, a bar owner in the village of Malonne where Martin is expected to move into a convent as part of the conditions of her release.
Martin depicted herself as a more passive culprit than Dutroux, acting on the whims of a psychopath. But she is still blamed for aiding her then-husband's depraved and murderous spree, and is particularly loathed for letting two 8-year-old girls starve to death while Dutroux was briefly imprisoned.
The Court of Cassation will decide on appeals from the prosecutor's office and the families of victims on Tuesday and rule if procedural errors were made in the decision of a lower court to approve Martin's conditional release. Barring such errors, nothing stops her from leaving prison.
Dutroux, who was an unemployed electrician and convicted pedophile on parole at the time of the crimes, was convicted eight years after his 1996 arrest of abducting, imprisoning and raping six girls between the summers of 1995 and 1996. He was also found guilty of murdering two of the six girls, who ranged in age from 8 to 19 years old.
The two 8-year-olds starved to death in a secret basement dungeon built by Dutroux, who left them in Martin's care while he was serving four months in jail for theft. The last two kidnap victims came out alive after the police took action.
The Dutroux case was a watershed moment for the nation. It ended decades of social tranquility and rattled the government system as little had since World War II. In a nation of 10 million at the time, one demonstration drew more than 300,000 angry people onto the streets of Brussels to demand immediate change.
Beyond the gruesomeness of the crimes, the population was infuriated by the ineptitude of the police and judicial systems, which left several glaring opportunities to catch the criminals — and save lives — go to waste.
An investigator heard voices in Dutroux' cellar next to the dungeon but didn't take proper heed. Authorities spread over different judicial districts failed to communicate properly. A parliamentary inquiry laid bare many other ailments in the police and justice systems, laying the cornerstone for reforms.
"We often talk about the pre- and post-Dutroux era," said Professor Brice De Ruyver, head of Ghent University's Institute for International Research on Criminal Policy. "It has almost brought the country, at that time, balancing on a state of revolution."
But when it comes to the judicial system, many people say the reforms did not go far enough, and the Martin case has brought those concerns to the forefront.
Under Belgian law, release is possible after a convict has served one-third of his or her sentence, including credit for pre-trial detention. It is rarely questioned for common criminals, but obviously in Martin's case, a lot of emotion is involved.
Dutroux himself was sentenced in 2004 to life in prison with no possibility of parole because, the judge said, of "the danger he represents to society." Some of his victims' parents are now galvanizing the public once again as they demand that Martin, too, stay in jail.
"What does one have to do to serve a full sentence?" asked Pol Marchal, who lost his 17-year-old daughter, An, in the killing spree.
Marchal is demanding a bigger say in the decision on whether Martin should be released. He and Jean-Denis Lejeune, the father of another victim, went to see Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo last Friday, and Di Rupo promised more reforms.
"I understand the emotions of the families and the population," Di Rupo said. "The abominable crimes are still very much in our memory."
De Ruyver said the public's confidence in the justice system remains "extremely low. This is, for a democratic state of law, a very explosive situation."
"Those who are responsible for justice reform haven't yet succeeded in making clear to the public that justice is now functioning better than during Dutroux' times," the professor said.
Again, protests have been staged, including in Malonne, the home of the Clarisse convent some 75 kilometers (45 miles) south of Brussels.
There, if she is released, Martin will have to work some 20 hours a week to pay for lodging and she will have to meet weekly with authorities to determine the extent to which she is meeting the conditions of her release. In theory, she has limited freedom to move.
De Ruyver mentioned several reasons why Martin should not yet be released, foremost among them being that early conditional release is meant to help reintegrate a person into society. That is the opposite of what Martin will be doing if she shelters in the Clarisse convent of Malonne, he said.
"She is hiding herself from society, going to a monastery and living there, in a closed community. This is not taking back your place in society," he said. In addition, he said, "If society says 'I don't want you back,' you have a big problem."
The extent to which that is the case with Martin is underscored by the special measures authorities will have to take to protect her from possible attacks if she makes it to the bucolic convent. Media reports say some 40 police will guard the convent day and night, at a cost of 5,000 euros a day.
That alone is another sore point.
"You cannot underestimate the enormous cost of law enforcement being operational there and at the same time not be used in other, more important aspects of crime fighting," De Ruyver said.
Lejeune, whose daughter Julie was one of the girls who starved to death, was pessimistic that the parents could at this point keep Martin in jail, noting they've been unable to find a legal basis for it.
But, he added, "regarding others who have committed equally bad crimes, there will be reform taking shape in the justice department."