Eighteen students who put a young Black man through a notorious fraternity hazing ritual at a prestigious university in Belgium, leading to his death and setting off a national debate about racism, were convicted of involuntary manslaughter on Friday and ordered to pay fines and perform community service.
Sanda Dia, a 20-year-old student at the Catholic University of Leuven, now known as KU Leuven, died of multiple organ failure in December 2018. He had been forced alongside two other fraternity pledges to drink alcohol excessively, chug fish oil until he vomited, swallow live goldfish and stand outside in an ice-filled trench.
The decision on Friday, by the Antwerp Court of Appeal, appeared to end a case that had wound its way through the Belgian justice system for five years. The court found all 18 students guilty of involuntary manslaughter and degrading treatment, but acquitted them of charges that included culpable neglect and administering a harmful substance causing death or illness.
The students — all members of the fraternity Reuzegom, which traditionally attracts scions of the country’s elite — were each sentenced to perform 200 to 300 hours of community service and pay fines of 400 euros, or about $430.
The students, who have never been named fully in public, will also pay damages to Mr. Dia’s father, brother and stepmother, who will receive totals of 15,000 euros, 8,000 euros and 6,000 euros, or about $16,000, $8,500 and $6,400. The students will also pay Mr. Dia’s mother the amount she requested in damages: 1 euro.
The students’ lawyers have maintained that Mr. Dia’s death was a tragic case of hazing gone wrong, and the students’ families have fought to keep the conviction off their criminal records.
One of their lawyers, John Maes, praised the decision on Friday as “balanced and well reasoned,” according to Belga, a Belgian news agency.
In comments to the Belgian press, a lawyer for the Dia family, Sven Mary, expressed disappointment in the verdict.
“It is difficult for the family to hear that no one has been found guilty of culpable negligence or for administering the fish oil,” Mr. Mary said.
But he suggested that he would not advise the family to appeal the decision: “Should I recommend that to these people? I don’t know if I would be doing them a service.”
Because the students involved did not speak publicly about the case, he added, the family would not know exactly what had happened leading up to Mr. Dia’s death.
“In the end, we didn’t get an answer because of the silence the boys maintained,” he said. “We will never know. This is difficult for the family to deal with.”
On a separate occasion, for example, fraternity members used a racial slur as they ordered Mr. Dia to clean up after a party. A photo also surfaced purporting to show a fraternity member wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. A fraternity speech referenced “our good German friend, Hitler,” and a video showed members singing a racist song about the Belgians’ brutal colonial history in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Deleted WhatsApp messages, recovered by the police, showed fraternity members trying to cover their tracks after the death.
“This was not an accident,” Mr. Dia’s brother, Seydou De Vel, said in an interview in 2020.
“They thought, ‘He’s just some Black guy, we are powerful and nothing can happen to us,’” his father, Ousmane Dia, said in an interview at the time.
The case spurred many people in the Dutch-speaking community of Flanders to confront longstanding questions about endemic racism, especially as details emerged about the fraternity alongside a belated reckoning of Belgium’s history in Congo and the spread of Black Lives Matter demonstrations worldwide.
Mr. Maes appeared to allude to those larger debates, saying on Friday that the court had risen “above the war language of recent years.”
Others expressed outrage at the verdict. “Eighteen people humiliated and tortured Sanda Dia in 2018. No one intervened until it was too late,” Kenny Van Minsel, who was a leader of the student body at KU Leuven when Mr. Dia died, wrote in Dutch on Twitter. “Sentences, fines & no mention of culpable negligence. This is beyond madness.”
After Mr. Dia’s death, the fraternity was disbanded, but some accused the university of being slow to take disciplinary action against the students.
After an initial investigation in 2019, the students involved were ordered to perform community service and write a paper on the history of hazing. The next year, KU Leuven reported that it had started a new investigation after gaining access to the case’s criminal file.
In 2021, the school announced “final disciplinary sanctions” against the seven students who were still enrolled at the university, expelling and barring them from re-enrolling for a number of years or, in some cases, ever.