A woman who let two eight-year-old girls starve in a cellar and helped her paedophile husband carry out horrific abuse of others went from prison to a convent last night amid outrage from Belgians over the early release of one of the country's most despised criminals.
The nation's highest court approved Michelle Martin's release after she served 16 years of a 30-year prison term for her role in the mid-1990s kidnappings, rapes and killings by her then-husband Marc Dutroux.
Martin left prison in an unmarked vehicle for a Clarisse convent in Malonne, a 45-mile trip south of the capital Brussels, where her lawyer said she would seek atonement for her crimes. More than 100 people hurled insults at her as she arrived, some trying to break through police barriers.
"There is only one word for this. This is simply absurd. But I will have to accept it," said Paul Marchal, whose daughter An was one of Dutroux's victims. "Concerning Martin, my fight is over and done. I lost."
Martin's lawyer, Thierry Moreau, insisted that his 52-year-old client deserved a shot at a better life.
"There is something human remaining in Mrs Martin, even though she acknowledges herself she is responsible for very serious acts," Mr Moreau said.
"She paid the price for it. She did it in respect of the law, and now there is this project where she wants to redeem herself and this will be another way to do her sentence."
The Dutroux case horrified the nation and led to widespread changes in Belgian police procedures. Police had visited the home twice in the mid-1990s and did not find the kidnapped girls, although they heard voices, and ignored a letter from Dutroux's mother that expressed concern her son was abusing young girls.
Dutroux, an unemployed electrician and convicted paedophile on parole at the time of the crimes, was arrested in 1996 and convicted eight years later of abducting, imprisoning and raping six girls between the summers of 1995 and 1996. He was also found guilty of murdering two of the six girls, aged eight to 19.
The last two of Dutroux's kidnap victims were found alive in his basement a few days after his arrest.
Martin was accused of conspiracy in the kidnappings and imprisonment leading to the deaths of the two starved girls, who were held in a secret dungeon specially built in a cellar. Martin said she had been too scared to go into the cellar to feed them while Dutroux was serving a four-month jail term for car theft.
A year after they were kidnapped, the bodies of the two were found in the garden of a house that Dutroux owned.
Martin has depicted herself as a passive culprit of psychopath Dutroux, but was blamed for aiding her husband when he went on a depraved and murderous spree and letting the young girls die.
The prospect of her release had spawned demonstrations in the past few weeks, with demands to keep her in jail.
Several policemen were stationed near the convent even before the verdict was announced and fluorescent graffiti nearby protesting at Martin's arrival was removed.
At a religious statue near the gate, teddy bears sat next to a picture of the two eight-year-old girls who starved to death in Dutroux's dungeon in 1996.
The lawyer for Jean-Denis Lejeune, whose daughter Julie was one of the girls who starved to death, said the families would work to change the law that allowed Martin's early release and make sure victims get a bigger say how long convicted criminals have to stay behind bars.
"We will first have to ask the politicians to change the law and, secondly, we will have to go to Strasbourg," where the European Court of Human Rights can still have an impact, said lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier.
That process could take years, however.
Neighbours of the convent worried about Martin's influence. A children's school is close by.
"My children are studying here," said Malonne resident Fabienne Huboaux. "We are afraid, afraid to see what is going to happen with them when they are going to go to class."