Eliciting gasps of horror in the courtroom, Marc Dutroux took the stand today to describe how he kidnapped and raped young girls in the mid-1990s.
But he denied killing any of them and claimed he was acting on orders from a child-sex network in Belgium.
His ex-wife, Michelle Martin, testified that two victims, both eight, starved to death in her basement in 1996 while Dutroux was in jail for four months for a car theft.
She apologised for not feeding the girls, saying: “I know I have some responsibility in the deaths of Julie (Lejeune) and Melissa (Russo).
“I was too scared to go down (into the basement). ... I regret infinitely what happened.”
Testifying on the third day of his trial, Dutroux said he acted on behalf of a “big crime ring” when he snatched six girls in different places in Belgium and held them hostage between the summers of 1995 and 1996.
“I cannot accept all responsibility, but take responsibility for the role I played,” he told a packed courtroom in Arlon in a tense question and answer session with Judge Stephane Goux.
Prosecutors reject the crime ring claims. They have charged Dutroux, 47, his ex-wife and two alleged accomplices with kidnapping and raping six girls and murdering four.
Their trial comes almost eight years after events that shocked Belgium as much for inept police work as for the depravity of the acts of which the former electrician is accused.
Standing up and speaking into a microphone from the defendants’ box, encased in bulletproof glass, Dutroux admitted raping Laetitia Delhez, then 14, and Sabine Dardenne, then 12.
He gave explicit details, including repeated acts of oral sex that drew loud gasps of horror from a packed public gallery.
Dutroux said he had “consensual” sex with Eefje Lambrecks, then 19, saying she was “a very nice girl”. He denied killing her, her schoolmate An Marchal, then 17, and Bernard Weinstein, an associate.
Dutroux said he and Weinstein built and wired a secret cell in his basement for the victims on orders of a child-sex network operating in Belgium.
“It was urgent to work quickly because we had to get the girls,” he said.
“Nihoul wanted the girls,” he said of Michel Nihoul, a co-defendant.
Dutroux said he and Michel Lelievre and “two police agents” kidnapped An and Eefje on the Belgian coast.
Lelievre contradicted that, testifying that only he and Dutroux selected the two girls who had missed the last streetcar and were hitchhiking.
Weinstein’s body was found in a garden behind Dutroux’s home in the central Belgian town of Sars-la-Buissiere on August 17, 1996.
Dutroux and the other defendants entered no plea today, which is possible in Belgium. Belgian law requires defendants to take the stand and answer questions from the judge, but they are not under oath.
The defence was keen to have Dutroux testify about a child-sex network. Prosecutors say Dutroux was a loner who graduated from car theft to kidnap and rape.
The trial focuses on the fate of six girls who were abused in a cell behind a swing-away door Dutroux built in the cellar of one of his seven small and decrepit homes.
Prosecutors argue Dutroux – helped by his ex-wife, Martin, 44, Michel Lelievre, 32, and Nihoul, a 62-year-old Brussels lawyer with a history of fraud - kidnapped girls across Belgium, held them hostage and filmed abusing them.
Dutroux, Martin and Lelievre were arrested on August 13, 1996, a week after young Laetitia disappeared.
She and Sabine were rescued from the cellar on August 15, 1996.
On August 17 and September 3, 1996, police found the bodies of Julie and Melissa, who disappeared on June 24, 1995, and those of An and Eefje in the yard of his house.