BRUSSELS – One of Belgium's most despised criminals, the former wife of a pedophile and child killer who let two of his victims starve to death, left prison for a convent late Tuesday after serving barely half her 30-year sentence.
Earlier in the day, the nation's highest court had approved a ruling that let Michelle Martin leave prison early despite her part in the mid-1990s kidnappings, rapes and killings by her then-husband, Marc Dutroux.
The case of Dutroux and his wife had horrified the nation and led to widespread improvements in Belgian police procedures after it emerged that police had bungled attempts to save some of the girls he had targeted.
Prison spokesman Laurent Sempot said Martin left prison in an unmarked vehicle late Tuesday.
Her eventual destination was the verdant village of Malonne, a 75-kilometer (45-mile) trip south of the capital, where she will live in a Clarisse convent and, in the words of her lawyer, seek atonement for her crimes.
Family members were outraged at Tuesday's court decision.
"There is only one word for this. This is simply absurd. But I will have to accept it," said Paul Marchal, whose daughter An was one of the victims of Dutroux. "Concerning Martin, my fight is over and done. I lost."
The lawyer for Jean-Denis Lejeune, whose 8-year-old daughter Julie was one of the girls who starved to death, said the families would work to change the law and make sure victims get a bigger say how long convicted criminals have to stay behind bars.
"We will first have to ask the politicians to change the law and, secondly, we will have to go to Strasbourg," where the European Court of Human Rights can still have an impact, said lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier.
That process could take years, however.
Several policemen were stationed near the convent even before the verdict was announced and fluorescent graffiti near the convent protesting Martin's arrival was removed. At a religious statue near the gate, teddy bears sat next to a picture of the two eight-year-old girls who starved to death in Dutroux's dungeon in 1996.
A children's school is close by.
"My children are studying here," said Malonne resident Fabienne Huboaux. "We are afraid, afraid to see what is going to happen with them when they are going to go to class."
Martin has depicted herself as a passive culprit of the psychopath Dutroux. But she is still blamed for aiding her husband as he went on a depraved and murderous spree, and she is particularly loathed for letting the two girls starve while Dutroux was briefly imprisoned.
Dutroux, an unemployed electrician and convicted pedophile on parole at the time of the crimes, was arrested in 1996 and convicted eight years later 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 last two of Dutroux's kidnap victims were found alive in his basement a few days after his arrest.
Martin faced accusations of conspiracy in the kidnappings and imprisonment leading to the deaths of the two starved girls, who were held in a secret dungeon specially built in a cellar. When Dutroux was serving a four-month sentence for car theft, Martin said she was too scared to go into the cellar to feed them.
One year after they were kidnapped, the bodies of the two were found in the garden of a house that Dutroux owned.
Martin's lawyer, Thierry Moreau, insisted Tuesday that his 52-year-old client deserved a shot at a better life.
"There is something human remaining in Mrs. Martin, even though she acknowledges herself she is responsible for very serious acts," Moreau said. "She paid the price for it. She did it in respect of the law, and now there is this project where she wants to redeem herself and this will be another way to do her sentence."
The prospect of Martin's release had spawned demonstrations in the past few weeks, with demands to keep her in jail.