Belgian child rapist Marc Dutroux on Thursday dashed hopes that he would reveal new details about the kidnap, rape and murder of girls at his trial but insisted he was a reluctant accomplice to a pedophile ring.
In a final plea before the jury deliberates next week on its verdict, the country's most hated criminal rejected prosecution charges that he was the leader of a small band of kidnappers.
Reading from a prepared text behind the dock's bulletproof glass, Dutroux reiterated a claim maintained since the trial began on March 1 that he worked for a ring whose members included police and unnamed politicians.
He said he reluctantly supplied the ring with girls out of fear for his life and that of his family.
"I believed the threats ... against my family," he told the court in this eastern Belgian town near the Luxembourg border.
He admitted abducting and raping the girls but denied murdering any of them.
"To condemn me for crimes that have nothing to do with me would be to close the door on the truth," he said.
Belgium's trial of the century has gripped people for more than three months amid expectations that Dutroux would provide new details about a series of crimes that first shocked the country in the mid-1990s.
Given police bungling of the investigation into circumstances surrounding no fewer than six missing girls, many people embraced a conspiracy theory according to which Dutroux is supposed to have worked under the protection of a mysterious ring whose members belonged to the upper echelons of society.
Despite a vague reference to police officers helping kidnap two of his victims, Dutroux failed to provide evidence to support his claim.
One of his lawyers spoke of a ring with ties to a Satanic cult, but he could do no more than to ask the jury to give investigators more time to pursue the lead.
Dutroux faces life in prison on charges of kidnapping and raping six girls and killing four of them. The two youngest victims, both 8, starved to death in a dungeon that he built in his basement.
His three co-defendants, including his ex-wife Michelle Martin, each face more than 20 years in prison.
"My errant ways must be condemned," he said.
Reading those lines in a steady voice, Dutroux sought eye contact with the two surviving victims. One of them, Sabinne Dardenne, had left the courtroom, refusing to hear him speak.
Dutroux accused his co-defendants of the murders, singling out Michel Nihoul as the link to the purported ring.
He urged them to tell the truth about the death of the girls, whose bodies were dug up behind houses near Charleroi following the arrest of the suspects in 1996.
Dutroux expressed regret for the crimes committed and said he could understand how the victims' families felt.
"If it were me, I would not want to forgive," he told them. "You are the parents that I would have loved to have had," he said.
But his words rang hollow for Raymond Lejeune, whose granddaughter Julie starved to death in the dungeon.
"Marc Dutroux has always lied and he continues to lie," he said, barely containing his rage.
"What we have been waiting to know is who kidnapped our little girl," he said.
"But we will never know. That is what chokes us up," he said.
In brief remarks to the court, Martin also expressed remorse while Nihoul denied having anything to do with Dutroux.