25 years ago today: 300,000 people marched in white against child abuse
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25 years ago today: 300,000 people marched in white against child abuse

A picture taken 20 October 1996 shows an aerial view of protestors during a rally of tens of thousands in Brussels, protesting against the Belgian justice system's handling of the child sex, kidnapping and murder case that had shocked the nation for the past three months. Credit: Belga

On this day 25 years ago, over 300,000 people marched in Brussels to demand a more effective justice system and to support the families of Julie, Melissa, An, Eefje, Laetitia, Sabine and all child victims of violence. The six girls were victims of Belgian serial killer Marc Dutroux.

The sheer scale of the “White March” was a milestone in Belgian history, Belga News Agency reports. A few days later, it prompted the setting up of a parliamentary commission to look into the shortcomings and dysfunctions of the investigation into the Dutroux case.

The gravity and gruesome detail of the crimes carried out by Marc Dutroux and his accomplices Michelle Martin and Michel Lelièvre shocked the country.

The trio was arrested on 13 August 1996 and although Laetitia Delhez and Sabine Dardenne were released two days later, investigators later discovered the bodies of Julie and Mélissa, who had died of hunger in Marc Dutroux’s hideout and were buried in his garden, and those of An and Eefje, buried at Bernard Weinstein’s home in Jumet.

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Devastated by the disappearance of their children and dismayed by the judicial system, several parents called for a large-scale rally. Marie-Noëlle Bouzet, (mother of Elizabeth Brichet who disappeared in 1989), Carine and Gino Russo, Louisa and Jean-Denis Lejeune, Paul and Betty Marchal, and the family of Loubna Benaïssa, kidnapped in 1992, invited the population to take part in an apolitical march.

Credit: BELGA PHOTO /D.WILLAM

On 20 October 1996, some 300,000 people took to the streets of Brussels. It was one of the largest mass demonstrations Belgium had ever seen. White balloons, white caps, white flowers, and white T-shirts symbolised solidarity with the grieving families.

Consequent reforms led to the creation of a federal public prosecutor’s office, responsible for major criminal cases, and the establishment of the Court for the Execution of Sentences (TAP).

The gendarmerie was also replaced by a two-tiered integrated police force: the federal police on the one hand and the local police on the other. From the momentum generated by the 300,000 marchers, the Foundation for Missing and Sexually Exploited Children, better known as Child Focus, was created.

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