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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rage Fades in Belgium Over Child Murders

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- For a year now, their smiles have haunted Belgium. Behind shop counters, on car windshields, in the windows of homes and offices are the grade-school photos of two 8-year-old girls whose murders have shamed the nation.

Now their images are fading -- along with hopes that the public outrage generated by the killings would force an overhaul of a judicial system seen as uncaring, corrupt and inept.

While the government promised reforms, they are nowhere to be seen. And officials accused of incompetence -- even complicity -- in the lurid murders continue in their posts.

"Our society has undergone a sort of ritual cleansing. Now things are going back to normal," says Koen Pelleriaux, a sociologist at Brussels Free University.

On Aug. 17, 1996, police pulled the bodies of Melissa Russo and Julie Lejeune from a shallow grave behind a brick row house on the outskirts of Charleroi, a grimy rust-belt city south of Brussels.

The house belonged to Marc Dutroux, unemployed electrician, small-time car thief and convicted child rapist.

Dutroux, jailed and awaiting trial, has acquired a famous French lawyer to defend him against charges he kidnapped Julie and Melissa, abused them for months and then let them starve to death in a cell in his basement.

Authorities late last year dug up the bodies of two teenage girls from Dutroux's garden. Two other girls, aged 12 and 14, were rescued alive.

As media reports uncovered a catalog of errors by law enforcement, public revulsion quickly turned to anger: A minister paroled Dutroux in 1992 less than halfway through a sentence for sex attacks on children; detectives ignored tips and refused to share clues with rival police units; magistrates put the search for the girls on the back burner.

A parliamentary panel concluded Julie and Melissa would have been alive today had police done their work correctly.

A second inquiry is investigating the possibility that the child killers received official protection.

The case set off a wave of protests last year, culminating in the Oct. 20 "White March," when more than 300,000 people poured into the streets of Brussels to express solidarity with the slain girls' parents and to demand changes to the judicial system.

The government promised to review the parole system for sex offenders, combine a mosaic of police forces into a new national force and end the practice of putting political appointees in top judicial positions.

A year later, however, none of that has happened, and the public clamor that was so powerful has died down.

A poll published Saturday in the daily La Derniere Heure reflected deep public skepticism about the investigation.

Just 25 percent believed the judicial system would in fact be modernized, while 87 percent doubted that the truth about the murders would ever be revealed.

Righteous fury has been supplanted by gloomy resignation: The poll found that 86 percent saw no point in taking part in a new White March.