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Belgians Unite to Demand Changes After Child Sex Killings

October 17, 1996

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets again today to demand an overhaul of Belgium’s justice system due to its widely criticized probe into an alleged child sex ring.

Striking workers and students marched on courthouses and blocked traffic for a fourth straight day, angered by what they consider a bungled investigation into the kidnapping, rape and murders of at least four girls.

In northern Antwerp, some 6,000 students marched on city hall to protest Monday’s firing of the chief investigator in the case, Jean-Marc Connerotte.

Workers at the Renault car factory in Vilvoorde, Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene’s hometown, blocked morning rush hour traffic.

And after protesters staged a symbolic cleanup of the justice system _ hosing down and scrubbing the grimy fronts of some courthouses _ they turned to throwing eggs and tomatoes.

Many carried slogans reading ``Stop Operation Coverup,″ alluding to the widely held view that Connerotte was dismissed to stifle the investigation.

Aside from a few scattered fights, the protests went peacefully and were united in a purpose that even the prime minister supports.

``What we need is drastic change,″ Dehaene said Wednesday.

The Supreme Court dismissed Connerotte from the case, arguing he had compromised his impartiality by attending a September fund-raiser for families missing children.

After several years of failed investigations into missing girls, Connerotte’s work led to the arrest of convicted child rapist Marc Dutroux.

Dutroux led police in August to the bodies of four kidnapped girls. Two girls were rescued from his secret dungeon; at least a half dozen still are missing.

Belgium long has handed jobs to political allies, whatever their talents, then overlooked incompetence. Connerotte’s competence made him a hero to many, who found the decision to dismiss him incomprehensible.

``My faith in the system is diminishing ever more,″ said Paul Marchal, the father of 18-year-old An Marchal, one of four girls found murdered on Dutroux’s property.

A march through Brussels opposing Connerotte’s dismissal was planned for Sunday. Such solidarity is stunning for a nation almost ever divided in linguistic strife between northern Flanders and southern Wallonia.

``This has never been seen before,″ said political analyst Kris Deschouwer of Brussels University.

Past scandals generally have involved politicians _ bribes in exchange for a military contract that led a general to suicide and a half dozen high officials to quit; the 5-year-old murder of former vice premier Andre Cools. A former minister is in jail, charged with plotting the murder.

The deaths and sexual assaults of children, however, touched the rawest nerve.

``This is all about very essential, human values,″ said Deschouwer. ``That is what makes it special.″

Dutroux was jailed in the late 1980s for sexually abusing five children, but was released on good behavior in 1992 after serving only about half of his 13-year sentence.

During the search for the missing girls, police searched Dutroux’s house twice without finding two children hidden in a secret chamber.

Other accusations of bungling include:

_Police failed to coordinate efforts and kept information from one another;

_a key magistrate took a month vacation at a vital stage of the investigation.

It was only under Connerotte’s direction that police eventually located the hidden dungeon where the unemployed electrician hid the girls. The Supreme Court’s decision to remove him from the case was viewed by many as further incompetence.

``The court’s decision represents for us the equivalent of spitting on the tomb of Julie and Melissa,″ said Gino Russo, father of Melissa, who was kidnapped and murdered together with Julie Lejeune. Both girls were 8 years old.

``It was a slap in the face of the victims,″ wrote Georges Van Damme to his newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. ``Our whole society needs to be questioned.″

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