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Ex-fraternity members back in court over death of black Belgian student

Eighteen former members of an elite university fraternity in Belgium are back on trial over the death of a black student following a brutal initiation ritual.

Prosecutors have asked for sentences ranging from 18 to 50 months in jail for the 18 people implicated in the death of Sanda Dia, a 20-year old engineering student, who died in December 2018 after being forced to drink excessive alcohol, eat large amounts of fish sauce, and stand in an icy well for hours.

The case resumed on Monday at Antwerp court of appeal after an 11-month break. Dia’s family appealed against an earlier judge, who said she could only look at the events of 5 December 2018, the last day of the initiation ritual, when Dia suffered a cardiac arrest after standing in freezing water for hours.

The family, supported by the public prosecutor, insisted the trial assess all events that led to his death, including the earlier part of the hazing. Calling for sentences of up to 50 months on Monday, the prosecutor said everyone present knew the ritual was an attempt to break would-be members physically and mentally. “It was inhumane and everyone knew that one day it would end badly,” the prosecutor said.

Dia, whose father arrived in Belgium as an asylum seeker from Senegal in 1994, had aspired to join the elite, mostly white Reuzegom fraternity at KU Leuven, formerly the Catholic University of Leuven and one of Belgium’s most prestigious universities. To gain entry, he and two others endured a barbaric multi-day initiation process, which, according to local media, began when the three were forced to consume large amounts of alcohol, including a litre of gin, and rancid porridge.

On the final day they were taken to a chalet in a wooded area of Vorselaar, northern Belgium, where they were forced to stand half-naked in a well of icy water and swallow creatures, including a live goldfish, and big amounts of fish sauce.

Dia, who had no pre-existing health conditions, was taken to a local hospital that day, where he suffered a cardiac arrest. He died two days later from a swelling of the brain caused by excessive salt consumption.

The 18 defendants are on trial for the administration of harmful substances resulting in death, as well as degrading treatment and unintentional killing. The other two students who survived the ritual after being treated for hypothermia are civil parties to the case.

The death has triggered a debate about racism on Flemish university campuses, after it emerged that police had found WhatsApp videos of some of the Reuzegom students singing “Congo is ours” to a homeless black man soon after Dia’s death, according to the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad.

After Dia was taken to hospital the students attempted to cover up what had happened by cleaning up the scene of the abuse and attempting to delete messages and videos from their phones, although they were later recovered by investigators. After an initial suspension, the university allowed all the defendants to resume their studies.

One lawyer for the defendants said Dia’s race had nothing to do with the abuse. “My clients also want to be clear: Sanda Dia’s skin colour played no role in this file,” Kris Luyckx told the court on Monday, according to the Flemish public broadcaster, VRT. “Sanda was one of them, one of their good friends, they did not see his colour,” he said.

The Antwerp court of appeal is expected to take a week to decide whether it agrees with the lower court’s judgment that it could only hear the facts of the final hours of the hazing. The judge at the lower court in Hasselt had also wanted to change the charge to “inflicting assault and battery”, which carries a lower sentence.

If the court of appeal follows the position of the family and public prosecutor it can then choose to hear the entire case, rather than returning it to the lower court.

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