What is the line between a brotherly bonding moment and a horrific hazing?

Joost Nan en Sven Bakker

At the end of April 2022, the Belgian court started with the case hearing concerning Sanda Dia's death. After a violent hazing, the twenty-year-old was admitted to the hospital, where he died shortly after. The case is characterised by a large group of suspects (eighteen), proof that is deliberately deleted by the persons involved and the hardship of finding an unbiased judge. We spoke about this case with Joost Nan, Professor of Criminal (Procedural) Law at Erasmus School of Law, and Sven Bakker, Assistant Professor of Criminal (Procedural) Law at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

In December 2018, Sanda Dia passed away because of the consequences of a hazing at the Leuven student association Reuzegom. During the hazing on 5 December 2018, Dia and the two other aspiring members had to drink litres of fish oil, vast amounts of alcohol, and even a mouse that was put through the blender. Additionally, the pledges had to lie in cold water for hours and undergo inhumane treatment. The dreary case has made a significant impact on Belgian society. The trial has been gravely delayed due to the difficulties of finding a judge that is not somehow connected to the Reuzegom association.  

The eighteen Reuzgommers are sued for administering harmful substances resulting in death. The punishments the prosecution has demanded vary from eighteen months to five years of prison, combined with a fine of €8.000 per person.  

Dia's family has appealed a decision of the judge, who decided that only the events on 5 December 2018 had to be considered for the verdict. However, the prosecution and the family also want the events of 3 and 4 December 2018 included, which are crucial in rounding up the evidence against some suspects. Therefore, the case has been submitted to the Court of Appeal in Antwerp. 

We spoke to Nan and Bakker about the implications of this case. Both have considerable expertise within the field of extraordinary exceptions in criminal law. Bakker's thesis, which he wrote at Erasmus School of Law, even covered the so-called sports and game situation, which might apply to hazing.  

What do you think about this case? 

"I find it very interesting from a criminal perspective", Bakker admits. "A lot of events are debatable, and the case involves many relevant details for studying the law. Think of issues like; what if someone gives permission but does not know what is about to happen? What If anything goes wrong? How should a judge deal with this?" There are also technical issues, like the number of suspects and witnesses and the provability. "The case has many different legal challenges, and that makes it an interesting case for me", says Bakker. Nan agrees: "It is legally interesting to what extent it is criminal. But we should not forget that someone has died." 

The case has eighteen suspects. Is this possible in the Netherlands as well?  

"Easily", Nan answers. He gives the example of the Marengo trial, which also has many suspects. "It is especially complicated to collect the evidence for all those eighteen separate people. But you can easily convict several people", Bakker continues.  

Many defendants point to their co-defendants. "Referring to each other is always a good defence," Nan says. "But if you look at the Nijmegen scooter case [ed. two suspects blamed each other for driving a scooter after a fatal collision, after which they were both convicted of manslaughter], that does not have to stand in the way of a conviction", Bakker answers.  

Is it realistic that all these eighteen defendants will be convicted?  

Nan and Bakker indicate that they do not know the exact facts of the case. Nevertheless, Nan does not think it is realistic that all defendants will be convicted: "You must, of course, have made a sufficient contribution. The board of the fraternity and people who performed acts will have a much harder time than people who were there but did not play an active role." 

Does the Dutch approach differ from the Belgian one in dealing with these?  

"That depends on the nature of the consequence. With a fatality, you do not quickly end up with only community service," Nan begins. Bakker adds: "If someone is beaten or, what you saw at Vindicat, someone's head is stepped on, that is not the same as actually killing someone. So the nature of the consequence and the seriousness of the facts are decisive for the punishment imposed. It is difficult to compare the Belgian case of Sanda Dia to a Dutch one, given that it has been long since a student died during a Dutch hazing." 

The case is receiving much attention in Belgium because many high-ranking individuals have ties to the association. Will this have consequences for the ruling?  

Nan and Bakker doubt whether this is the case. "A judge who has been a student association member has experienced a hazing. Therefore, they might understand it if something does not go quite right. Such a judge might associate more with those guys. So that can have a somewhat beneficial effect for the defendants", Nan explains. But the opposite is also possible. "It can also be the case that a judge does not know anything about student associations and, therefore, has no understanding of the ridiculous events", Nan concludes.  

In addition, students themselves agree in advance to participate in hazing. Does this also play a role in this case?  

"At some point, it does not matter anymore", Nan begins. Bakker nods in agreement and continues: "You give permission for something, but you also have to know in advance what you are giving permission for." "The whole problem with hazing is that you agree to something without knowing quite what is going to happen", the associate professor continues. Bakker explains that one can expect things to happen at a hazing event to a certain extent. Think of insults, eating or drinking things that are not pleasant, starving, and feeling uncomfortable. "That is not pleasant, but it is not something that will result in death", Bakker explains. "If it goes way past the point you agreed to, then consent no longer plays a role", he concludes. According to Bakker, Sanda Dia undoubtedly consented to certain things; "That is what I assume if you want to join a certain fraternity in Leuven that is so well known for its hazing. You know that you can expect something and that you must brace yourself. But that does not mean you will end up in a hospital and die. You do not agree to that", Nan states.  

Should and could there be stricter enforcement of hazing incidents in the Netherlands?  

"It is also related to consent", Bakker begins. "You must have a certain autonomy as a prospective member and as an association, certain self-determination. You have to be able to do fun things, of course. These activities have to be within certain limits; the situation of Sanda Dia is an excess. But I can also imagine that hazing offers many advantages at the beginning of your student life. People come together, and a close bond is formed quickly. Especially if you have been through things together that are not exactly pleasant." 

Enforcement, therefore, focuses on preventing excesses. This prevention is reflected in the rules that have been established in recent years; at student associations, alcohol is no longer served during hazing events, and there must be sufficient sleep. "The problem seems to be mainly with fraternity hazing. Rules bind these to a lesser degree", Bakker explains. "Then there might be more drinking involved, and perhaps worse things happen. The association might regulate that to some extent. But I do not know if you want the police to monitor what your hazing will look like." Nan continues: "Anyone can set up a club within which they are free to have an admission procedure. The army used to have hazing as well!" 

Should the university have some role in regulating the hazing of associations with which it is financially connected?  

Nan indicates that the university should oversee the associations, provided they are financially embedded. "Associations derive some of their status from the fact that they are linked to the university in a city. If a fraternity exists independently from a student association, you know when you join that there might be some different things going on than with affiliated fraternities", he continues. "If the university gives the association accreditation and funding and it goes wrong, then the university must enforce that. But this is not infinite. The rector does not have to stand at the bar every day to check whether things are going well", Nan concludes. 


Whether there is enough evidence to convict all eighteen defendants, what possible penalties will be handed out, and what consequences this will have for future Belgian hazing events will have to become apparent from the verdict, starting with that of the Court of Appeal in Antwerp. However, when this can be expected is still unknown. Nan and Bakker are both looking forward to the verdict in the case of Sanda Dia.  

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