Students in Belgium Hazing Death Are Sentenced to Fines and Service

Eighteen students who subjected a black youth to a notorious fraternity hazing ritual at a prestigious Belgium university, resulting in his death and sparking a national debate over racism, were found guilty of manslaughter on Friday and ordered to pay fines and perform community service. .

Sanda Dia, a 20-year-old student at the Catholic University of Leuven, now known as KU Leuven, died of multiple organ failure in December 2018. He had been forced along with two other fraternity pledges to drink alcohol to excess, suck oil of fish he even vomited, swallowed brightly colored fish and was left outside in an ice-filled ditch.

Friday’s decision, by the Antwerp Court of Appeal, appeared to end a case that had worked its way through the Belgian court system for five years. The court found the 18 students guilty of manslaughter and degrading treatment, but acquitted them of charges that included culpable negligence and administration of a noxious substance, causing death or illness.

The students, all members of the Reuzegom fraternity, which traditionally attracts descendants of the country’s elite, were sentenced to perform 200 to 300 hours of community service and pay fines of 400 euros, or about $430, each.

The students, who have never been fully named publicly, will also pay damages to Dia’s father, brother and stepmother, who will receive a total of €15,000, €8,000 and €6,000, or about $16,000, $8,500 and $6,400. . The students will also pay Mr. Dia’s mother the amount she requested as damages: 1 euro.

Lawyers for the students have maintained that Mr. Dia’s death was a tragic case of hazing gone wrong, and the students’ families have fought to keep the conviction off their criminal records.

One of his lawyers, John Maes, hailed the decision Friday as “balanced and well reasoned,” according to Belga, a Belgian news agency.

In comments to the Belgian press, a lawyer for the Dia family, Sven Mary, expressed disappointment at the verdict.

“It is difficult for the family to hear that no one has been found guilty of negligence or of managing the fish oil,” said Mr Mary.

But he suggested that he would not advise the family to appeal the decision: “Should I recommend that to these people? I don’t know if I would be doing them a service.”

Because the students involved did not speak publicly about the case, he added, the family would not know exactly what happened before Mr. Dia’s death.

“In the end we did not get an answer because of the silence that the boys kept,” he said. “We will never know. This is difficult for the family to handle.”

After Mr. Dia’s death, local news points of sale discovered details around the fraternity, whose members included sons of judges, business leaders and politicians, angering many Belgians.

On another occasion, for example, frat members in Reuzegom used a racial slur when they ordered Mr. Dia to clean up after a party. A photo also surfaced purporting to show a member of the fraternity wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. A fraternity speech referenced “our good German friend, Hitler,” and a video showed members singing a racist song about the Belgians’ brutal colonial history in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Deleted WhatsApp messages, recovered by police, showed fraternity members trying to cover their tracks after death.

“This was not an accident,” Dia’s brother, Seydou De Vel, said in an interview in 2020.

“They thought: ‘He’s just a black guy, we are powerful and nothing can happen to us,’” his father, Ousmane Dia, said in an interview at the time.

The case prompted many in the Dutch-speaking community of Flanders to confront longstanding questions about endemic racism, especially when details about the fraternity emerged alongside an afterthought of Belgium’s history in the Congo and when they were brought to held Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the world.

Maes appeared to allude to those broader debates, saying Friday that the court had risen “above the bellicose language of recent years.”

Others expressed outrage at the verdict. “Eighteen people humiliated and tortured Sanda Dia in 2018. No one intervened until it was too late,” Kenny Van Minsel, who was student body leader at KU Leuven when Mr Dia died, wrote on Twitter in Dutch. “Sentences, fines and no mention of culpable negligence. This is beyond insane.”

After Mr. Dia’s death, the fraternity disbanded, but some accused the university of delaying in taking disciplinary action against the students.

After an initial investigation in 2019, the students involved were ordered to perform community service and write an article on racism. The following year, KU Leuven reported that there had been started a new investigation after accessing the criminal file of the case.

In 2021, the school announced “final disciplinary sanctions” to the seven students who were still enrolled in the university, expelling them and preventing them from re-enrolling for several years or, in some cases, never.