Hazing Killed a Black Student. His 18 Tormentors Avoided Prison.

REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
The library of the university KU Leuven “Katholieke Universiteit Leuven” is pictured in Leuven, Belgium April 18, 2019.

Sanda Dia, an engineering student at a prestigious Belgian university, hoped to join an elite fraternity. But the members subjected him to brutal hazing rituals that ended up killing him.

Dia, 20, was forced to swallow a live goldfish, drink large amounts of fish oil to vomit up the fish, and stay in a trench of extremely cold water, where the fraternity members urinated on him, in the middle of the winter. Dia, who was Black, collapsed and was taken to a hospital. He died two days later.

The December 2018 episode at KU Leuven, once known as the Catholic University of Leuven, shocked the nation and sparked a debate about class, racism and hazing rituals. KU Leuven has been described as Belgium’s highest-ranked university, and the Reuzegom fraternity Dia hoped to join was an elite, mostly White, club.

On Friday, 18 members of the fraternity were found guilty of manslaughter and degrading treatment. But, while prosecutors had argued for prison time, they were instead sentenced to between 200 and 300 hours of community service, and fined about $430 each.

According to court documents, Dia and two other recruits had been forced to drink excessive quantities of alcohol as part of their initiations. The following day, they were forced to take part in other rituals in a forest, which included being forced to stay in a well of frigid water, swim in a stream and eat part of a mouse that had been blended alive.

“The fact that these people consented to these acts does not detract from their absolutely humiliating character,” the court found.

And the treatment, particularly the drinking of fish oil, led directly to Dia’s death. He was taken to hospital around 9 p.m. on Dec. 5, about two hours after the ritual started. Soon after, he had a heart attack and fell into a coma.

According to the court documents, Dia’s death was caused by the excessive amount of salt in his bloodstream, caused by the consumption of fish oil. His condition was exacerbated by hypothermia – his core body temperature having fallen to 27 degrees (80.6 F).

Once the fraternity members realized the gravity of the situation, they tried to cover their tracks, according to the court documents – clearing both the forest area where the rituals took place and Dia’s bedroom, and closing a WhatsApp group they had used. One member sent a message with the words, “Delete everything.”

The 18 members, whom the court did not name, were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, degrading treatment and cruelty to animals.

However, they were acquitted of failing to help Dia or administering a harmful substance causing death or illness – with the court finding that there was no warning on the fish oil bottle and that even doctors may be unaware of the levels of toxic salt consumption.

In addition to the fines, the fraternity members were ordered to pay damages, including to the two other students who underwent the hazing rituals and also were hospitalized. The defendants will not have criminal records as a result of the case, Jan De Man, a lawyer for two of the students, said in a email.

The judgment was welcomed by lawyers for the defendants. John Maes, who defended two of the fraternity members, said the verdict was “balanced and well-reasoned,” Het Nieuwsblad reported, while Jorgen Van Laer, a lawyer for another of the defendants, said the ruling was “just” and accused the media of blowing the case “out of proportion.”

The judgment said the community service was “appropriate,” given factors including the defendants’ age when they offended, the amount of time that passed since Dia’s death, their lack of prior convictions, as well as the negative impact of social media reporting of the case on the defendants and some of their family members.

Others, however, condemned the sentencing as overly lenient.

Kenny Van Minsel, who was the president of the organization representing students in Leuven at the time of the hazing, described the outcome of the case as “beyond madness.” He also said on Twitter that he still believed that racism “played a role in the death of Sanda Dia.”

Meanwhile, the journalist and commentator Bart Eeckhout said he did not “doubt for a second that the judges ruled in good conscience” but added: “This is a good day to realize that class still matters in our society.”

According to Belgian media, the fraternity’s existing members were from affluent backgrounds, one of them the son of a judge, and there were allegations of racist incidents at the fraternity.

Van Minsel previously told the public broadcaster VRT that members of the fraternity once used a racial slur against Dia and told him to clean up after a fraternity party, “because blacks have to work for whites.”

And Sven Mary, the lawyer for Dia’s family, said during the trial that there was evidence of racism at the fraternity – including a speech in which one member referred to “our good German friend Hitler,” according to the English-language news website the Brussels Times.

After the verdict and sentencing, Mary said that Dia’s family had not received all the answers it was seeking, including which of the fraternity members had made Dia drink the fish oil. “We will never know. That is difficult for the family to deal with,” he told Belgian media.

The sentences would not ease the family’s pain, he added. “Your child is gone. Your brother is gone. This remains emotional and something that should not have happened.” He said the punishment “will probably never be enough. . . . But the court has ruled. We all have to learn to live with that.”