Belgian trial shines spotlight on university hazing rituals

Three years after student Sanda Dia died following a brutal initiation ritual carried out by an exclusive club at KU Leuven university, the trial of 18 former students accused of being responsible for his death has been put on hold.

The second part of the criminal trial was meant to kick off on Monday. But on Friday, lawyers for Dia’s family decided to appeal a court decision on the scope of the case, delaying the trial. No new start date has been given.

Here are the key points of the case.

What is the trial about?

The son of a Senegalese immigrant, Dia, then a 20-year-old engineering student at KU Leuven, wanted to join the Reuzegom club, a male fraternity run by students from wealthy Antwerp families.

In 2018, Dia was accepted into the club and took part in a hazing ritual that would have allowed him to become a full member.

The ritual took place over several days in Leuven. During the final part of the ritual, which occurred in a wood in Vorselaar, near Antwerp, in early December 2018, Dia was forced to drink large amounts of alcohol, eat live goldfish, and eat toast spread with blended mouse and eel. Along with the two other students who were also undergoing initiation, Dia was put for hours in a pit filled with ice water. He was also forced to drink large amounts of fish sauce: The high concentration of salt in his blood is what killed him, according to forensic experts.

The trial, to take place in Hasselt, pits the 18 members of the Reuzegom fraternity against 13 plaintiffs, mainly Dia’s family members and relatives (animal rights organization GAIA is also one of the plaintiffs because of the animals killed during the ritual). Well-known Belgian attorneys are representing both sides. 

What are the charges?

The charges against the 18 former students initially included unintentional killing and the administration of poisonous substances resulting in death, which together carry a jail sentence of up to 15 years. 

As none of the defendants revealed who forced Dia to drink the fish sauce, the judge last week proposed broadening the charges to assault and battery. She subsequently said she could not judge the entire initiation ritual, only what happened in Vorselaar.

But for Dia’s family, this would have excluded too many incidents leading up to the fatal hazing, which could lead to lighter sentences. They therefore decided to appeal the judge’s decision.

Allegations have also been made that Dia received worse treatment than others because he was Black, but these were not included in the official charges because of a lack of evidence. Sven Mary, a prominent Belgian lawyer who is representing the Dia family, said there are not “enough elements to say that it was a crime with an aggravating circumstance of racism.”

Why did it take so long to come to court?

The investigation hit hurdles right from the outset. After the hazing, the Reuzegom members immediately deleted all messages and photos from their phones and websites, and cleaned up Dia’s dorm room. 

Dia’s family accused the families of the other club members of a cover-up.

Then the judicial investigation took more than a year and a half. Finally, the hearing was postponed in September last year, because one of the judges involved was affiliated with KU Leuven.

When is the verdict due?

The hearing was paused last week to allow for a revision of the charges to assault and battery. The Court of Appeal of Antwerp will now rule on the Dia family’s lawyers’ appeal against narrowing the scope of the incidents taken into consideration. If it rules in the family’s favor, the case will be heard in the Antwerp court instead of Hasselt, Sven De Baere, one of the lawyers for Dia’s family, said.

It’s unclear at this stage when the trial will continue.

What are hazing rituals like in Belgium?

Fraternities and student clubs are not just an American thing.

Ianja Rak came to Belgium from Madagascar at the age of 18 to study at a management school. “My father had studied here and he had been ‘baptized,’” she said. She explained that this was generally a positive experience because it taught values such as solidarity, learning to say no, and getting to know yourself better. 

Depending on the university, rituals last for a few weeks at the beginning of the school year, generally from September to November. People get together for the so-called cantus, where they play games, sing traditional songs and drink beers. 

But in Leuven, the Reuzegom rituals were known to be far harsher. Kenny Van Minsel, former president of the Leuven students organization LOKO, said they did everything they could to get non-official regional clubs to sign a “hazing charter,” meant to introduce rules and boundaries during rituals. 

Reuzegom was “a ticking time bomb,” Van Minsel said.

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