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Summer of Murder, Scandals Unsettle Belgians

September 30, 1996

GRACE-HOLLOGNE, Belgium (AP) _ In this rust belt town, where a mining company called Hope and Good Fortune offers neither, the mood is as dark as the coal that once provided a decent life.

It isn’t much different in the rest of Belgium, following a summer of unsettling criminal investigations.

This steel and coal mine center is mourning two local girls whose murders were among four tied to a pedophile gang. And the former mayor is in jail, accused of ordering the killing of his political godfather, one of Belgium’s leading politicians.

Investigations into both crimes have laid bare a wide swath of high-level corruption and exposed woeful inefficiency in the nation’s police and justice system. The revelations have traumatized Belgians, encouraging a nagging feeling that the powers-that-be are either corrupt or incompetent.

``Maybe we were too blind for too long, thinking that Belgium was a modern democratic state,″ said Maurice Mottard, current mayor of this suburb of Liege in eastern Belgium. ``Maybe we only saw the tip of the iceberg; maybe the two-thirds underneath are really bad.″

Other people feel even more than doubt.

``We don’t believe in the good intentions of the government anymore,″ said Carina Ros, who works in the marketing department of a major publishing house in Brussels, the capital.

It’s a sentiment shared by Jean Schouterens, a retired teacher in Grace-Hollogne. ``We have no more confidence in anything.″

Jean Goffin, a life-long Socialist activist, agrees. ``I’m now like doubting Saint Thomas _ I only believe what I see. It’s something for a Socialist to quote a saint.″

Every day, new accusations and revelations further erode public confidence.

A week ago, a senior police official said he had proof of widespread corruption in which investigations involving the rich and powerful were quickly filed away.

``I was seething when I heard the news,″ said Tino Haenen, a music programmer at the De Singel theater in the northern port of Antwerp. ``In the end you no longer have any idea about who governs you.″

Even King Albert II, the constitutional monarch who traditionally stays out of government affairs, has expressed outrage. On Sept. 10, he tore up tradition and publicly demanded a cleanup of the justice system.

In a rare display of breastbeating, Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene told Parliament nine days later that ``we need to have the courage to think about the errors that we have committed.″

Those ``errors″ became glaringly clear when Marc Dutroux was arrested Aug. 15 and led authorities to the bodies of four girls, including two from Grace-Hollogne, who had been kidnapped, sexually abused and killed.

A search for more missing children continues. A dozen people, including a policeman and a businessman with reported political ties, have been arrested for alleged links to the child sex ring.

As details of the girls’ ordeal were released, Belgium’s horror was compounded by a stream of reports on police bungling, even collusion, that allowed such criminals to flourish so long.

One police officer from the southern city of Charleroi was charged with working with Dutroux in a car theft ring. About a dozen local police have been interrogated. Suspicions that Dutroux enjoyed some police protection have soared since.

Dutroux was freed from prison in 1992 under Belgium’s forgiving early-release program; he had served only half of a 13-year sentence for sexually assaulting five children.

While living off the generous social security system as an unemployed invalid getting $2,500 a month with few questions asked, he allegedly resumed his crimes, only this time killing children after assaulting them.

Children started disappearing across Belgium, but police failed to pursue any concerted investigation. At one stage, five investigating judges and several police forces were working on the cases with no coordination.

Numerous tipoffs pointed to Dutroux, including one from his own mother. But police failed to take action or refused to share information in what many say was a bitter internal war between the different security and police services.

Even when they finally were hot on his heels, errors kept piling up. When Dutroux was jailed last winter on car-theft charges, he was freed after three months.

When police searched his house _ twice _ they failed to find the basement cells where Dutroux was keeping two 8-year-old girls from Grace-Hollogne who later would starve to death in the hidden dungeons.

Compounding public concern, early in September police arrested Alain Van der Biest, a former government minister and Mottard’s predecessor as mayor of Grace-Hollogne. Van der Biest is charged with the 1991 murder of Andre Cools, his political mentor and a former deputy prime minister.

Van der Biest was arrested with a former policeman and four other people, fueling suspicions of a widespread coverup in the case by political and judicial authorities.

During the Cools investigation in Liege, police uncovered a possibly related scandal involving bribes paid by Italian aircraft maker Agusta SpA to Socialist Party politicians in return for a Belgian military contract.

The Agusta scandal forced the resignation of four Socialist ministers in the national government _ a coalition of Socialists and Christian Democrats. It also led to the suicide of a general and caused the downfall of NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes, another former deputy premier.

So far, the national government has survived the sex gang scandal, and it promises to impose tougher laws on such crimes and to revamp the justice system.

But talk of the killings dominates conversation, and rumors are rampant. Many people are convinced top politicians, police officers or other leading figures were involved in the child sex ring.

``We’re fed up. It all piles up,″ said Ros, the marketing executive who attended a memorial demonstration for the murdered girls Sept. 22.

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