A case involving 18 former members of an elite student society is to be heard in the criminal court, with prosecutors saying they must face charges for alleged involvement in an initiation ritual that led to the student’s death.
Prosecutors say all 18 members of the now-dissolved fraternity at the Catholic University of Leuven, known as KU Leuven, not far from Belgium’s capital, Brussels, must be held equally responsible for the death of their fellow student, 20-year-old Sanda Dia, back in December 2018, local media reported on Thursday.
Dia, a Belgian of Senegalese descent, had been studying civil engineering at the university and wanted to become a member of one of its clubs, which was said to be among the most exclusive on campus. However, its violent initiation ritual proved fatal for the young man.
The fraternity members first made Dia and two other students drink an excessive amount of alcohol, and then denied them access to water so they couldn’t ease their dehydration, according to local media. They were also forced to drink a concoction that contained fish oil and to dig a deep hole, fill it with icy water and stand in it for several hours, while they were urinated on. Dia was reportedly the last of the three who was allowed to clamber out of the pit. A video showing the ritual humiliation has since come to light.
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When the fraternity members realized Dia’s health was deteriorating, it is alleged that they didn’t call an ambulance, but instead took him to hospital themselves, and only after a delay. The young man died from a combination of intoxication, hypothermia, and organ failure.
Although the university suspended some of the students who were said to have been involved, and dissolved the club, no immediate charges were brought. Their defense team argued that some of the students had been only “bystanders,” the Brussels Times reported, but the prosecution has maintained throughout that all 18 were equally responsible, having been aware of the planned ordeal and having failed to oppose it in any way.
This week’s decision to proceed with the case in the criminal court means all of them now face charges that include manslaughter, deliberate administration of harmful substances, degrading treatment, and non-assistance to a person in danger. An alleged aggravating circumstance – that Dia’s skin color was the motive for the increased violence shown towards him – was not retained in the indictment, but videos of the club’s members singing racist songs have reportedly been obtained by the police. Dia’s father has alleged that the students felt their actions would go unchallenged as his son was “just some black guy.”
If found guilty, each of the 18 students faces up to 10 years in prison, Belgian daily La Libre reported.
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