Belgium Confronts Verdict on Black Student's Hazing Tragedy

Belgium Confronts Verdict on Black Student's Hazing Tragedy

In 2018, the tragic death of Sanda Dia, a black Belgian student, sent shockwaves through Dutch-speaking Flanders. According to court documents, the 20-year-old student endured a series of horrific hazing rituals as part of his initiation into an elite fraternity at one of Belgium's renowned universities. These rituals included being forced to consume excessive amounts of fish oil and alcohol, swallowing a live goldfish, and enduring exposure to frigid temperatures in an icy pit.

Hazing, a practice that subjects individuals to physical and emotional distress, was an integral part of the initiation process for aspiring members of the Reuzegom fraternity.

During the initiation, Mr. Dia collapsed and was immediately rushed to the hospital. Sadly, he passed away two days later, leaving the entire community devastated by the tragedy.
Following an in-depth coroner's investigation, it was determined that the excessive consumption of fish oil resulted in toxic salt levels, which emerged as a significant contributing factor to the death of Sanda Dia.

More than four years later, a legal judgment has been passed, holding 18 students accountable for their involvement in Mr. Dia's untimely demise and the degrading treatment he endured. The students have been sentenced to varying amounts of community service, with a maximum of 300 hours, and fined €400 ($430; £340) each.

Additionally, the court has mandated that the students compensate Mr. Dia's family and two other individuals who were also subjected to the harrowing hazing initiation.

Notably, the court's ruling stated that the students, who were affiliated with the now-disbanded Reuzegom fraternity, historically associated with some of Belgium's elite, were not found guilty of intentionally administering substances that would cause death or illness.

Since the tragic death of Mr. Dia, there has been a growing discussion, particularly among young people on social media and within student circles, regarding the potential role of race and class in the treatment he endured during the hazing rituals. These discussions have sparked allegations of racism within the Reuzegom fraternity, with reports in Belgian media suggesting that Mr. Dia was subjected to a racial slur and singled out for menial tasks due to his race.

Local media sources have also highlighted that some members of Reuzegom came from influential backgrounds, including being the sons of politicians and judges, implying their privileged status in society.

Given these factors, the verdict has drawn strong reactions from certain Belgians, who perceive the sentences as excessively lenient and express their indignation accordingly.

The hashtag #justiceforsanda has gained significant traction on TikTok, accumulating over 6.5 million views, reflecting the widespread support for seeking justice in the case.

Protests have also erupted in several cities, including Antwerp, Brussels, Gent, and Leuven, where Mr. Dia attended university. Another demonstration is scheduled to take place in Brussels on Sunday.

Eliza Plesea, a 22-year-old student and co-organizer of the Brussels protest, expressed the prevailing sentiment, stating, "Everybody is just angry and disappointed in the Belgian justice system." She went on to compare the severity of punishments, emphasizing that individuals in Belgium can face higher fines for not having a bus ticket than what the hazing-involved students received.

While one of the students' defense lawyers, John Maes, described the verdict as "balanced and well reasoned," protest organizer and student Jean Kitenge, aged 25, firmly believes that race played a significant role in Sanda Dia's tragic death.

According to Mr. Kitenge, it is a common practice at Belgian universities for students to experience varying degrees of "humiliation" during society initiations, although some individuals may face more extreme treatment than others.

"Everyone undergoes humiliation regardless of their ethnicity, but some individuals receive specific comments that others are spared," stated Mr. Kitenge, who serves as the president of the youth branch of the French-speaking DéFI party. He further expressed his belief that justice is not equally accessible to everyone in Belgium.

However, there are contrasting opinions on this matter. During the trial of the 18 students, a defense lawyer responded to Mr. Dia's father, who questioned why his son did not survive the hazing, by stating, as quoted by the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad: "It has nothing to do with race and everything to do with physique, height, and weight."

In contrast, Mr. Maes, another defense lawyer, commended the court for transcending the "war language" that had pervaded recent discussions with its ruling.

The ruling has evoked "mixed emotions" among some members of Mr. Dia's family, as they navigate their feelings in the aftermath.

"We have consistently maintained that we are not vengeful individuals, and we do not wish harm upon anyone," stated Seydou De Vel, Mr. Dia's brother. However, he expressed lingering concerns about the circumstances surrounding his brother's final moments.

One pressing question pertains to the identity of the individual responsible for administering the fish oil to Mr. Dia, as the students involved have not disclosed this information. "It is extremely painful not to have answers while these 18 defendants from Reuzegom possess all the knowledge," Mr. De Vel lamented.

Sven Mary, the lawyer representing Mr. Dia's father, Ousmane Dia, acknowledged the family's difficulty in not having access to the complete facts. However, he stated that he would not recommend pursuing an appeal of the verdict.

Following Mr. Dia's tragic death, the Reuzegom fraternity, known for its elitist nature, was disbanded. The university where the fraternity operated, KU Leuven, took action against seven students who were still enrolled in 2021. These measures included expulsion and, in certain cases, a permanent ban from registering at the university.

The university acknowledged that no disciplinary action or legal proceedings could alleviate the sorrow caused by Sanda's death. They emphasized their commitment to remembering Sanda and the unfortunate events that transpired during the Reuzegom initiation ritual, stating, "As a university community, we will never forget Sanda and what happened."

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