‘Unfair’ sentences for fatal Belgian ‘initiation’ prompt protests

A court has sentenced 18 elite fraternity members to fines and community service for roles in reckless ritual

June 4, 2023
Source: Jules Césure
Sanda Dia mural on KU Leuven auditorium

Protests are being held in Belgium over the penalties handed out to fraternity members responsible for the 2018 accidental killing of a black student, who died after an initiation ceremony.

Sanda Dia, 20, died from ingesting too much salty fish oil, part of a series of ordeals to join the Reuzegom student club at KU Leuven, which also included eating a live goldfish, biting the head off a live eel and sitting for hours in a ditch filled with cold water, vomit and urine. 

In a May 26 ruling, a judge at Antwerp Court of Appeal sentenced each of the 18 fraternity members involved in the initiation to up to 300 hours of community service and fines of up to €400 (£343) for the accidental killing and degrading treatment of Mr Dia.

Local media reported that around 300 protesters gathered in central Antwerp the next day to protest the sentences, with some noting the trivial size of the fines given the fraternity members’ wealthy backgrounds. Mr Dia was one of three students that went through the gruelling two-day hazing”, an annual ceremony that took place in a log cabin near Vorselaar, a small town outside Antwerp.

Hospital doctors treating the initiates found Mr Dia had a lower body temperature and higher salt levels in his blood than the other two. The members said extra fish oil was administered to him as he did not throw up the live goldfish each had swallowed. Excessive drinking during the previous day of the initiation worsened his condition.

Politicians and academics are among those who have protested the sentences. “I have tickets for my parking that are of the same amount, so I don’t think it’s really fair,” Lore Van Praag, a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam, told Times Higher Education. Professor Van Praag, a sociologist who has studied the experiences of students with migrant backgrounds in Belgium, said universities there needed to do “a lot more work” to tackle racism. 

In the US, deaths during hazing rituals are commonplace and often result from alcohol poisoning. But Maurice Punch, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics who has written extensively about criminality on campuses, said European examples were rare. 

He said the extreme initiations of small “aristocratic” clubs such as Reuzegom were tolerated by universities because of the power and prestige of former members and members’ parents. He added that the recent trial had had to be moved because one of the parents was a judge in the district.

Zehra Colak, a researcher at Utrecht University who has studied the experiences of Turkish-descended students with clubs at KU Leuvencriticised the fact that prosecutors did not consider race during the trial and that none of the defendants had been given criminal records or been identified during the proceedings. “This sort of gives the message that you can just get away with it when you are white and come from a privileged social background,” she said. 

The perception that Belgian universities might have issues with racism was heightened last year when a video emerged of two staff at the University of Antwerp making disparaging comments about Moroccan and Orthodox Jewish students during a recorded lecture. The university distanced itself from their comments and said it “condemns every kind of racism”.

Reuzegom, which was disbanded in the months after Mr Dia’s death, also seemed to have problems with race, Dr Colak noted, referring to reports that Mr Dia was racially abused by a member a couple of months before his death.

Responding to the claim it was not doing enough to combat racism, a spokesperson for the university told THE that Mr Dia’s death had “fundamentally changed the way KU Leuven works, acts and thinks about inclusion”. They cited a 2020 inclusion charter, the appointment of two vice-rectors responsible for diversity, inclusion and interculturality, and 2021 changes to student rules that made direct or indirect discrimination a disciplinary issue.

Seven Reuzegom members were eventually expelled from KU Leuven in February 2021 and the university has introduced strict guidelines for “welcome rituals” in collaboration with local police. The Flemish Interuniversity Council said its policy was to “never comment on individual cases”.

Dr Colak said Belgian universities’ anti-racist actions amounted to “window dressing” and that they had to acknowledge their systemic role in racism to meaningfully change their cultures.

“By having this slow reaction time they sent the wrong signal – it is very important for students and everyone in society to know that our educational system shouldn’t be racist,” said Professor Van Praag. “It’s hard to say whether it could happen again, but I have the impression racist experiences continue to happen, and similar practices will be more and more in segregated groups or more secretive,” she added, referring to the fatal ceremonies.

More protests against the sentencing are planned for 4 June in Brussels, Ghent and Bruges, with justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne condemning those who publicly named the anonymised Reuzegom members.


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