Belgian rage over paedophile case
Brussels - A Belgian court decided on Monday to order the early release of Michelle Martin, ex-wife of one of Europe's most infamous child killers, Marc Dutroux, triggering immediate fury from victims' families.
In a country already reeling from a Catholic church paedophilia scandal, the release of Martin halfway through her 30-year term - if confirmed by the judiciary - looks set to revive the grisly trauma of the Dutroux child-sex case.
Thrown behind bars in 1996 and later sentenced for her role in the multiple Dutroux murders, 51-year-old Martin was granted conditional release after her fourth attempt to win early freedom by a court in the western city of Mons, RTL-TVI television reported, citing the prosecutor.
The prosecution, which is opposed, has until on Tuesday to appeal the decision to let her walk free, with Martin remaining in jail until the decision falls.
"I take note of the court's decision. We will see whether there are reasons to appeal," said Justice Minister Stefaan de Clerck.
Under Belgian law, convicts can appeal for early release after serving a third of their sentence. A final ruling would rest with the country's highest appeals court.
In a traumatic case still fresh in the minds of Belgians, Dutroux was jailed for life in June 2004 for the kidnapping and rape of six young girls in the mid-1990s, four of whom died.
Hauled before a court the same year, Martin was found guilty of helping Dutroux hold his victims prisoner, and of complicity in the death of two of the small girls, found starved to death in a cellar in the southern city of Charleroi.
"She's the murderer of my daughter, 15 years seems light," said Jean-Denis Lejeune, daughter of one of the two 8-year-olds found in the cellar - Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo.
"We're allowing a monster out into society."
The family of another victim, Eefje Lambrecks, said in court that they opposed Martin's release because "she never voiced sincere regrets".
The return of the Dutroux case, viewed as one of the first in Europe to put paedophilia squarely in the public eye, comes as the Belgian Catholic church squirms over a child abuse scandal involving more than 500 victims and smearing its hierarchy.
In the latest revelations, the former bishop of Bruges last month admitted molesting two of his nephews for long periods of time.
The Dutroux affair broke in August, 1996, when police arrested the unemployed electrician following the abduction of a 14-year-old girl, Laetitia Delhez, abducted four days earlier.
She was found alive two days later with severely emaciated Sabine Dardenne, 12, in the basement of his house in Marcinelle, on the outskirts of southern Charleroi.
But the case took a gruesome turn in August, 1998 when the bodies of Lejeune and Russo were found buried in the garden of Dutroux's main residence in the southern town of Sars La Buissiere.
Less than a month later, the subsequent bodies of An Marchal and Eefje Lambrecks were found in another property owned by Dutroux.
The public's shock turned to fury when it emerged not only that police had missed a string of clues that could have led to Dutroux being apprehended earlier, and that he had been released from jail in 1992 after serving just three years of a 13-year sentence for the abduction and rape of five girls.
Outrage over the case and suspicions of a wider paedophilia network grew, with more than 300 000 people taking to the street in Brussels in October 1996, in the first of a series of marches to protest judicial incompetence.