Belgian trial puts spotlight on university bullying rituals – POLITICO
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Three years after student Sanda Dia died after a brutal initiation ritual performed by an exclusive KU Leuven club, the trial of 18 former students accused of being responsible for his death has been stayed.
The second part of the criminal proceedings was scheduled to begin on Monday. But on Friday, Dia’s family’s lawyers decided to appeal a court decision about the scope of the case, delaying the trial. No new start date was specified.
Here are the main points of the case.
What is the negotiation 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 participated in a bullying ritual that would have allowed him to become a full member.
The ritual took place in Leuven over several days. During the last part of the ritual that took place in a forest in Vorselaar, near Antwerp, in early December 2018, Dia was forced to drink large amounts of alcohol, eat live goldfish and eat toast with a mixture of mouse and eel. Along with the other two students who were also initiated, Dia was placed in a pit filled with ice water for hours. He was also forced to drink large amounts of fish sauce: the high salt concentration in his blood killed him, according to the coroner Experts |.
The trial, set to take place in Hasselt, pits the 18 members of the Reuzegom Brotherhood against 13 plaintiffs, mostly Dia’s family and relatives (animal rights organization GAIA is also one of the plaintiffs because of the animals killed during the ritual). Well-known Belgian lawyers represent both sides.
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The charges against the 18 former students initially included involuntary manslaughter and the administration of poisonous substances resulting in death, both of which carry up to 15 years in prison.
As none of the defendants revealed who forced Dia to drink the fish sauce that The judge last week suggested expanding the charges to include assault and battery. She later said she could not judge the entire initiation ritual, only what happened in Vorselaar.
But for Dia’s family, doing so would have ruled out too many incidents leading up to the fatal harassment, which could result in lighter sentences. They therefore decided to appeal the judge’s decision.
Allegations were also made that Dia was preserved worse treatment than others because he was Black, but these were not included in the official charges due to lack of evidence. Sven Mary, a prominent Belgian lawyer representing the Dia family, said there were “insufficient elements to say it was a crime with an aggravating factor of racism”.
Why did it take so long to get to court?
The investigation encountered obstacles from the start. After the harassment, the Reuzegom members immediately deleted all messages and photos from their phones and websites, and cleaned up Dia’s dormitory.
Dia’s family accused the families of the other club members of a cover-up.
Then the judicial investigation lasted more than a year and a half. Finally, in September last year, the hearing was postponed because one of the judges involved was from KU Leuven.
When is the judgment due?
The hearing was adjourned last week to allow for a revision of the assault and assault charges. The Antwerp Court of Appeal will now decide on the appeal of the Dia family’s lawyers against the limitation of the scope of the incidents considered. If it decides in favor of the family, the case will go to the Antwerp court instead of Hasselt, said Sven De Baere, one of Dia’s family’s lawyers.
It is currently unclear when the process will continue.
How do defilement rituals look like in Belgium?
Fraternities and student clubs aren’t just an American thing.
Ianja Rak came to Belgium from Madagascar at the age of 18 to study at a management school. “My father studied here and was ‘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 oneself better.
Rituals last a few weeks at the beginning of the school year, usually September through November, depending on the university. People come together for the so-called cantuswhere they play games, sing traditional songs and drink beer.
But in Leuven, the Reuzegom rituals were known to be much harsher. Kenny Van Minsel, former president of Leuven’s student organization LOKO, said they did everything they could to get unofficial regional clubs to sign a “hazing charter” that aims to establish rules and boundaries during rituals.
Reuzegom is “a ticking time bomb,” said Van Minsel.
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