A COUNTRY TO DIE FOR
Stephen Bates on why Belgium
is a good place in which to be a murderer
Brussels THE stately matrons of Brussels hug themselves a little tighter and clutch their snappy Yorkshire terriers more closely to their bosoms as they wait in the queues at the butchers or the bakers at Ixelles and Saint Gilles these days. Every week, it seems, there is another murder here; every day a new revelation, each more gruesome than the last. Bourgeois, comfortable, complacent little Belgium, much to its con- sternation, is rapidly becoming the murder capital of the world.
Recently Pastor Pandy has been filling the news. A portly, septuagenarian Hun- garian clergyman — with an unnerving resemblance to Les Dawson in drag — he is being interrogated over the disappear- ance of two wives and four of his eight children. Having discovered human bones in the basement of one of his three houses in a seedy street by a canal in central Brus- sels, and some unidentified meat in his fridge, the authorities have now moved on to his second address to search for more. The press, which has already decided Pandy is a Belgian Bluebeard, speculates gloomily that, besides knocking off his family, he may also have enticed middle- aged Hungarian women to his lair with tales of the bright lights of Brussels.
Pandy, though, is not the only one. There is also Patrick Derochette, a petrol- pump attendant and convicted sex offend- er, who was discovered earlier this year to have the mummified body of a nine-year- old Moroccan girl inside a trunk in a cellar of the garage where he worked. Then there is the 'Butcher of Mons', who has been industriously leaving bits of his vic- tims stuffed into plastic shopping-bags at appropriately named addresses, such as Worry Street, around the town.
Last but not least, glowering in his prison cell in Neufchateau, is Marc Dutroux, a bodger builder from the south- ern industrial town of Charleroi, who seems to have been engaged in child abduction and murder on an almost indus- trial scale. When he was caught in August last year, two teenage girls were freed from captivity in a purpose-built cell in his cel- lar, but the bodies of four more girls, including two eight-year-olds, were found buried in the back garden, along with the body of a former associate.
Belgium is not supposed to be like this; the crime wave sometimes seems unstop- pable. A fortnight ago even the European Commission had to admit the police to one of its crèches for the children of its employees because two of the staff were suspected of paedophile activity.
Belgium has always seen itself as a quiet, devout, prosperous and civilised Catholic country, where people are nice to children. Disapproving old ladies reprove you if your child slips your hand in the supermarket. But it is now learning some hard truths about its society and, more particularly, about its institutions and their way of doing things that are making most Belgians feel distinctly uncomfortable.
It is becoming apparent that the Belgian magistracy, which is responsible for inves- tigating crimes, and the country's police forces — there are three separate ones simply cannot cope. They have not solved a major crime for years, and some of their investigations make the Keystone Cops look like models of efficiency. A parlia- mentary report earlier this year accused the police of ineptitude in their hunt for Dutroux, who was eventually caught only because of the vigilance of a sharp-eyed nun and a schoolboy when he tried to kid- nap one child too many.
The police had searched Dutroux's house three times and had even heard children's voices, but had failed to find his captives. Much worse than that, inter- force rivalry not only led one team of investigators not to pass on information to another, but positively to try to mislead them by setting false trails. Why this should be so becomes less hard to under- stand when you watch the police at work, lounging on the streets of Brussels clutch- ing their pistols. No one with any sense expects a bright child to become a police- man, and it is certainly not a profession that is well paid or respected. Belgians, it is said, have too strong a folk memory of being ordered around by foreigners in uni- form from their centuries of occupation to pay much attention to those supposed to maintain order over them.
The magistracy is not much better. You don't have to be much of a lawyer, indeed it pays not to be, to be appointed to the job by local politicians. You can just be a party hack and what you get out of the job is a low salary (about £14,000 a year, but opportunities for graft), a sash for ceremo- nial occasions and an invitation to stand on the platform at local events.
And there is no real pressure to solve anything. The chief magistrate of Liege appointed by the socialists who have run the city for 100 years — is on record as saying that he may not have been the best-quali- fied candidate, but how else would a chap from his background rise so far? When a written examination was introduced for potential magistrates a year or two back, it was so successful that there was soon a shortage of candidates to fill the vacancies.
These are men and women trying to administer a justice system based on the Code Napoleon in a country which manages its historic divisions between the Dutch- speakers of Flanders and the French- speaking Walloons by elevating compromise to a high principle. Belgium is managed only because everyone gets a slice of the spoils. Advancement is given accord- ing to your place in the hierarchy and whose turn is next, which causes a disloca- tion between governors and governed.
There is no law-and-order ticket, no mileage in improving the system. When a committee condemned Benoit Dejemeppe, the chief magistrate of Brussels, as incom- petent recently, they were told that was not a good enough reason to sack him.
Brussels itself has 74 magistrates coping with 350,000 crimes a year. That is an aver- age of 50 a day each, theoretically requiring investigation, report and prosecution. No wonder two-thirds of cases never get to court and those which do can take five years. Within the last six months there has been good news — the magistrates have been issued with computers. One day they may get instruction in how to use them.
That may be why it is now revealed that the police were told of suspicions about Pastor Pandy in 1992, just as they had been told about Marc Dutroux in 1993 and Patrick Derochette in 1984, and why it took them years to call. Belgians have always rather liked the idea of getting round authority. Now they are outraged to discov- er that murderers like the idea too.
Stephen Bates is based in Brussels for the Guardian.