BRUSSELS -- The ex-wife of a notorious pedophile who aided her husband's horrific abuse and killing of young girls -- and who let two of the children starve to death -- was approved Tuesday for early release from prison, infuriating the victims' parents and reopening a dark page in Belgian history.
Michelle Martin, 52, received a 30-year prison term in 2004 for not freeing girls her then-husband Marc Dutroux held captive behind a secret door in their decrepit, dirty basement in Marcinelle, 40 miles south of Brussels. Dutroux, 55, is serving a life term for kidnapping, torturing and abusing six girls in 1995 and 1996, four of whom he murdered.
During those years, Dutroux also spent four months in jail for theft, leaving it to his wife to feed Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, two 8-year-old girls imprisoned in the basement. Martin, herself a mother of three, let the girls starve to death.
Martin and Dutroux have been behind bars since they were arrested Aug. 12, 1996. Under Belgian law, early release is possible after one-third of a sentence is served, including credit for time spent in pre-trial detention. And in Martin's case, a Belgian convent has said it would take her in as part of the conditions of her release.
But parents of the couple's victims said they were shocked by the decision to release Martin early and accused the court of ignoring their feelings.
The ruling "came out of the blue," said Paul Marchal, whose
"I believed this would not happen," Marchal said. "If Martin gets an early release, then who will they keep in prison?"
Jean Lambrecks, whose 19-year-old daughter, Eefje, also was killed by Dutroux, said he "was sure she would remain in prison, for she is as bad as Dutroux."
"She starved children to death," Lambrecks said. "She knew they were in the cellar."
A court in the city of Mons granted Martin's early release request -- her fifth in eight years -- after her lawyers found a place for her at the convent and convinced the court she would not become a repeat offender. She will likely not be released for another two weeks, leaving the prosecution time to appeal the ruling.
Martin is no longer ''the woman who was incarcerated in 1996," said her lawyer, Thierry Moreau. "She says her guilt will follow her to the grave."
Dutroux was a repeat offender whose first abuse conviction dated to 1986. For that initial conviction, he was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison, but served only three.
The girls held captive later in his basement ranged from 8 to 19 years old. The case revealed shocking lapses in law enforcement, notably two visits in 1995 by suspicious police who saw nothing awry in the basement and ignored a letter from Dutroux's mother, who worried her son was abusing young girls.
Under the terms of her release, Martin will have to remain at the convent and be assigned a daily task. A plan to release her last year to a convent in France failed when the convent changed its mind following publicity.