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The Dutroux case, and how it changed Belgium

The house in Marcinelle where the girls were kept. © Belga

On 15 August 1996, 25 years ago today, convicted rapist Marc Dutroux gave the police information which resulted in the release of two young girls from a basement and the solving of other cases.

His case held the nation in thrall from the disappearance of Julie and Mélissa in 1995 to the trial in 2004, but some of the changes and reforms that came about had an even more lasting effect.

The reform of the police

In 1995-1996, the country’s police forces were divided into local forces under the control of the local mayors and councils; the judicial police under the control of the federal justice minister; and the gendarmerie, a quasi-military force under the control of the federal home affairs minister.

During the entire investigation of the disappearances, the two main forces, gendarmerie and judicial, were working against each other. More accurately, the gendarmerie was acting on its own and keeping information from the judicial police, in the hope of being able to score a major victory by cracking the case first.

The gendarmes had their own informers, and at least one gave a good lead to Dutroux as a possible suspect. He even went so far as to describe a hidden space Dutroux had constructed in the basement of one of the rundown houses he owned.

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But because the gendarmes were operating illicitly – they ought to have turned the information over to the judicial authorities – they went into the basement empty-handed. And when nothing could be clearly seen, they drew a blank.

At one point, the officer leading the search, René Michel, called for quiet. As we now know, the two little girls who were hidden behind a fake shelving unit in a hidden dungeon also went quiet. From that moment on, their fate was sealed.

The federal parliament convened a special investigative committee chaired by Marc Verwilghen (Open VLD) and made up of members of all parties, invested with all of the investigative powers of a magistrate, and able to call witnesses to testify under oath.

The hearing was broadcast live on television and was eagerly followed by the public as if it were a sporting event or a soap.

The splits that were revealed in the system of policing in Belgium led to the Octopus accord, by which eight parties agreed to a root-and-branch reform of the Belgian police system.

There is now one federal police service, split into local and federal branches, with officers able to transfer seamlessly from one to the other.

The reform of the justice system

In April 1992, Marc Dutroux, then serving a sentence for several counts of rape, was granted conditional release from prison by justice minister Melchior Wathelet, despite the decision being opposed by a number of those whose opinion was sought. Dutroux was therefore released six years before the end of his sentence, which would otherwise have come in 1998. As a result, he was able to carry out his later crimes when, technically, he should still have been locked up.

Wathelet himself suffered some public criticism, as well as the condemnation of the European Parliament, but more for his lack of empathy towards the parents of the victims than for his rigid adherence to the rules. And it did little to affect his career. He went on to become an advocate-general at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

His son, Melchior Wathelet Jnr., is a former secretary of state for budget, asylum and migration, and a local politician in Verviers.

Following the case, the responsibility for granting early release from prison was taken away from the minister and handed over to a special tribunal set up for the purpose.

Public opinion

When it became clear just what political and functional errors had been made to allow Dutroux to prey without hindrance on children, people took to the streets of Brussels in numbers never before seen: some 600,000 people took part in what is known as the White March.

Many of those taking part were dressed in white, there were no political placards and no chanting, and the speeches were made by the parents of missing and murdered children. Many of those parents have still now, 25 years on, never achieved closure.

Children are still being preyed upon, maltreated, and murdered. But the spectre of another Dutroux, and the phenomenon of ‘stranger danger’, is as rare now as it was then. The vast majority of crimes against children take place in the home.

That’s as true as it ever was. But there are not many parents these days who would happily allow two little eight-year-old girls to go out alone, skipping carefree along a country road, unsupervised.