Justice Delayed In Belgium

No one knows when--or if--Marc Dutroux will ever stand trial for some of Europe's most notorious crimes against children. Five years have passed since police searched a house owned by the convicted car thief and child molester in Marcinelle, Belgium. Two abused and malnourished girls, 12 and 14, were rescued from a basement dungeon. At nearby houses, investigators found the corpses of four other kidnapped girls--two teenagers and two 8-year-olds, Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, who had apparently starved to death after eight months in captivity. Police confiscated hundreds of pornographic videos, many reportedly showing Dutroux abusing children. The suspect even led gendarmes to the spot where the 8-year-olds were buried.

Then the case fell apart. Essential files went missing. Investigators failed to review any of the videotapes until last year; by then some had vanished. A close examination of the dungeon turned up more than 4,000 human hairs. They sat in storage until late last year, when the prosecuting magistrate reluctantly ordered DNA tests. Some experts say a trial can't happen before 2004. One of the state's key witnesses, a woman who puts Dutroux at the scene of Julie and Melissa's kidnapping, is already 75 years old. The defendant's lawyer, Julienne Pierre, says: "A jury will have a hard time convicting Dutroux."

Victims' relatives say local authorities allowed the girls to die. "It's impossible there can be this many incompetent people in one place," says Jean-Denis Lejeune. His daughter, Julie, and her friend Melissa were still alive when police came to the Dutroux house looking for other missing youngsters. The searchers heard children screaming. Dutroux said the noise was just his own kids, and the cops bought the story. The 8-year-olds finally died while he was in jail on unrelated theft charges. "There were dozens of opportunities to save those girls," says Lejeune. "There have to be orders coming from somewhere." He's not alone in thinking someone with influence has been protecting Dutroux. "It's clear there are people involved we don't know about," says Melissa's father, Gino.

Still, no one has proved the popular theory that Dutroux was the procurer for a powerfully connected pedophile ring. Pierre denies any such notion. "There was never a network," he says. "There was never any commercialization of these children.'' While admitting that his client abducted children, the lawyer offers a bizarre explanation: "He wanted to create a gigantic underground society, a kind of city of disappeared children."

Three other defendants are awaiting trial with Dutroux, among them businessman and impresario Michel Nihoul. He is accused of kidnapping and trafficking in children. Nihoul darkly suggests that if he's ever convicted in the Dutroux case, he will name names, including "ministers and people even higher." Although Nihoul has insisted Dutroux was no more than a passing acquaintance, other witnesses have put them together on numerous occasions; one even claims to have seen them both at a pedophile orgy. Nihoul's attorney, Frederic Clement de Clety, admits his client arranged orgies for many prominent people--''but no one has proved that there were children at any of these parties. Michel Nihoul isn't interested in children. He likes older women."

Dutroux could get off easy, admits the prosecuting magistrate, Jacques Langlois. Under Belgian law, Langlois concedes, Dutroux might not even be tried for the girls' murders, only kidnapping and possibly rape. Langlois bridles at complaints he's dawdling. "It is a very complex case," he says. As if there ever was a simple case of child murder.