As the highly-mediatised trial over the death of Sanda Dia, a 20-year-old engineering student at KU Leuven who died in 2018 after a hazing of the now-disbanded Flemish student club Reuzegom, enters its fourth day on Wednesday, the defence of the 18 accused men takes to the floor.
Dia died of hypothermia and multiple organ failure after drinking large amounts of alcohol and fish oil, and standing in a cold pool of water in December for an extended period of time during an initiation ritual to join Reuzegom. Now, all 18 members of the private student club risk prison sentences of between 18 and 50 months for their role in Dia's death.
"Nobody will rid me of the idea that Reuzegom is an elitist club with a right-wing, racist and rancid side, and I am going to prove it to you," said Sven Mary, the lawyer for Dia's family.
Among other things, he pointed to a speech by Reuzegom member A.G. (who reportedly took charge during the ritual and risks the harshest sentence of 50 months in prison) in which he mentioned "our good German friend Hilter" and asked to make the hazing "really brutal" that year.
Erasing all traces
Mary also emphasised that defendant Z.B. was nicknamed 'Rafiki' – the monkey from the movie The Lion King. "The only [other] person of colour in the club is coincidentally called monkey," he said. Finally, he referred to photos showing Reuzegom members in Ku Klux Klan outfits, which he considers especially important because of Dia's mixed heritage; his father was born in Mauritania.
He also cited a testimony from someone who took part in the hazing ritual but never joined the club, and did not want to do so afterwards. "They asked how big the driveway of your house was, what kind of car you had, whether there was a swimming pool and what your father did and earned."
He also went into detail about how the 18 defendants started covering all traces from the moment Dia was in the hospital. Everything was taken down from Facebook, all Whatsapp messages were deleted, Dia's student room was cleaned, the pit that he was forced to spend hours in was closed and the entire area covered.
"Friends of Reuzegom, enjoy the next few months in which you are still blurred. Sanda Dia's family does not benefit from people going to jail, but these guys – doctors and engineers of the future – will represent society. It is important that society recognises them for what they are, that they are branded, because they are dangerous, especially in groups, and have no respect. All they think about is 'me, myself and I'."
Following a statement by his lawyer Tom De Meester, one of the defendants – A.V. – requested to speak himself, and addressed Dia's family and friends to apologise to them. "I have caused you great suffering and can do nothing more to make it right. I participated in a hazing tradition without knowing the dangers involved, that was incredibly stupid and naive."
He stressed that he was "very angry" with himself. "Unfortunately, I cannot make up for that anymore and I am very ashamed of it. I stand here in shame. I am ashamed of what I have done.”
Another Reuzegom member, L.L., also spoke up: "I would like to turn to Sanda's family and express my regret, I condemn myself very much for participating in the hazing and Reuzegom in general. But I want to embrace the reality and bear the responsibility. I realise that, for you, that may be a very poor consolation. But I am sorry."
Requesting acquittals or community service
Lastly, a third member of the student club took the opportunity to address Dia's family. "I am extremely sorry for what happened. It is terrible and should never have happened. I want to express my deepest regret and condolences. Not a day goes by that I do not think about Sanda." He underlined that he was ready to bear his responsibility, but also recognised that it will never be proportional to what Dia's family and friends have to bear.
Nearly all of the defendants' lawyers so far have stressed that the men were very young when the hazing ritual took place, that they were peer-pressured by the rest of the group and did not assess the risks correctly.
So far, two lawyers have requested an acquittal for their respective clients, as they only recognise their moral responsibility. According to the defence, these men have already been punished by their environment. The others have all proposed community service.
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In spring 2022, the trial was initially put on hold because the defendants would not admit who made Dia drink the fish sauce on the fatal night of the hazing, something which they have still not done. In turn, the judge proposed charging them with assault and battery.
Dia's family decided to appeal the judge's decision because they believed that it was important not to disregard the hazing events in the days running up to the young man's death, instead of only focusing on what happened that specific night.
The 18 defendants are being prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter.