The Dutroux affair, involving a paedophile ring, child-kidnapping and murder, might have surfaced in any country in the world. But would any other advanced, democratic country have been quite as slack as Belgium in taking action to track down the ring, and prevent further crimes? And is there something inherent in the way the Belgian state is organised which made the evident failure of the legal system almost inevitable? These are the questions which thousands of hitherto complacent Belgians are now asking, and they account for the enormous turn-out – around 3 per cent of the national population – for the ‘white march’ in Brussels on 20 October. In 16 years reporting on Belgium, I had never witnessed such a massive demonstration of public feeling. The crowd had come to express solidarity with the victims and their families, and anger at the manner in which their institutions and politicians had failed them. Not before time. For the paedophile crimes, however horrible, are only one of series of recent scandals. The list I have in mind is by no means exhaustive.
The Brabant killings: a series of apparently random attacks, in 1982-5, on supermarkets in Brabant (the area surrounding Brussels), which left 20 people (most of them customers) dead. They were killed by a gang toting riot-guns, who in most cases got away with only derisory amounts from the supermarket tills. Seven suspects were arrested, but released after a lengthy period without being charged: the lull in the attacks during the time of their detention was much remarked on. The raids were carried out with military precision, and it was widely believed that former, or even serving, gendarmes were responsible.
The murder of André Cools: the former Vice-Premier and leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party was shot dead in a car park in Liège in July 1991. Within weeks the police received a tip-off implicating another former Socialist minister, Alain Vander Biest, and several of his associates, but no attempt was made to interrogate them. Five years elapsed before they were arrested – that was in September, in the wake of the public outcry over the Dutroux case. They have been charged with plotting the murder of Cools; the two hitmen allegedly hired to do the job have been held in Tunis, where they have confessed to the crime. The Neufchâteau magistrate Jean-Marc Connerotte attempted to charge Van der Biest’s associates in 1994, but was promptly taken off the case by order of the Supreme Court. The same magistrate, to great public anger, was removed from the Dutroux case last month because he was thought to be biased against Dutroux and another defendant.
The Agusta and Dassault affairs: these involve allegations that the Italian company, Agusta, and the French company, Dassault, offered bribes to obtain contracts for military and aviation supplies in 1988-90. Five ministers or former ministers, all Socialists, have resigned over the affair, and three of them, including the former Nato Secretary-General Willy Claes, are facing trial on corruption charges, though the case is unlikely to be heard for at least another year.