New custody ruling for suspect over missing Belgian girls

BRUSSELS, June 27, 2006 (AFP) – The key suspect in the disappearance of two Belgian schoolgirls appeared before a judge again Tuesday, as prosecutors sought to keep him in custody for longer.

More than two weeks after the girls went missing in the eastern city of Liege, Abdellah Ait Oud remains the only identified suspect in an investigation which has revived traumatic memories of the Marc Dutroux case a decade ago.

The 38-year-old Moroccan — who turned himself in to police three days after seven-year-old Stacy Lemmens and Nathalie Mahy, 10, disappeared while playing at a street fair — denies any involvement in their disappearance.

On Tuesday Oud appeared in a closed-doors session of judges who have two days to decide if his custody can be extended, the suspect’s lawyer, Jean-Dominique Franchimont, told AFP.

Franchimont said he is arguing that "there no longer exist any serious indications of guilt" concerning his client, who was seen in the vicinity of the girls shortly before they disappeared.

The missing girls, who are step-sisters, were discovered to be missing well after midnight on the night of June 9 and their parents, who had been drinking in a nearby cafe, have been accused of neglecting them in the Belgian media.

The case has echoes of the Dutroux paedophile crimes in the 1990s. Like Dutroux, whose case began with the disappearance of two girls in Liege, Oud has previous convictions for sex crimes involving minors.

He served time in prison for raping his niece and also sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl. Jailed in 2001, he was released from prison in December on the belief that he no longer posed a threat.