A jury convicted a former electrician Thursday of a series of child abductions, rapes and murders in a case that horrified Belgium for nearly a decade and led to judicial and police reforms.
The 12-member jury found Marc Dutroux, a 47-year-old former convict, guilty of abducting six girls in 1995-96 and of killing two of the girls and an accomplice. His former wife, Michelle Martin, was found to be responsible for the deaths of two others -- two 8-year-olds who were the first to disappear.
According to testimony, the two starved to death while imprisoned in a basement cell in his house while Dutroux served a short jail term for car theft. Martin testified she was too afraid to go downstairs to feed the two girls.
Sabine Dardenne, then 12, and Laetitia Delhez, then 14 -- were rescued from the basement prison two days after Dutroux's Aug. 13, 1996, arrest.
Both delivered emotional testimony during the 3 1/2-month trial, staring Dutroux in the eye and asking him why he did what he did. Dutroux, who sat in the dock behind bulletproof glass, did not respond. In his final statement to the court, he expressed regret but did not apologize.
Dutroux, who now faces life in prison, was on parole at the time of the crimes after serving a prison sentence for raping young girls in the 1980s. That revelation caused national outrage, along with tales of official bungling during the search for the missing girls -- police searched Dutroux's house in 1995 but did not find the secret cell. Dutroux escaped from custody in 1998 and was briefly at large, prompting the resignation of the Belgian justice and interior ministers as well as the chief of the state police force. The case was directly responsible for reforms of the judiciary and police and the creation of a European organization for missing and sexually exploited children.
"The impact of Marc Dutroux . . . can hardly be exaggerated," Peter Vandermeersch, editor-in-chief of the De Standaard newspaper, wrote in a front page editorial this year. "He rocked this country to its foundation, made hundreds of thousands demonstrate in the streets of Brussels, caused government ministers to resign, shook the monarchy. Law enforcement would never be the same again."
Dutroux painted himself as the pawn of a supposed crime ring that was kidnapping young girls in Eastern Europe and forcing them into prostitution, a scenario rejected by prosecutors, who said they found no evidence of that. Dutroux accused a co-defendant, Michel Nihoul, of being his link to the syndicate, a charge Nihoul denied.
Dutroux and his three co-defendants were tried on 243 counts. Belgian TV stations broadcast the verdict live from outside the courthouse in this southeastern city.
One alleged accomplice, Michel Lelievre, was convicted of complicity in the kidnappings and other charges. Nihoul was convicted of being part of a gang that smuggled drugs and people into Belgium.
Relatives leaving the courtroom expressed satisfaction with the verdicts.
"They are guilty of everything, even the killings, even the torture," Paul Marchal, father of An Marchal, one of the murdered teenagers, told RTBF television.
"This has confirmed what I thought: They worked together," said Louisa Lejeune, mother of one of the 8-year-old victims. "The recognition of this is a relief."