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‘In their personal sphere, all those boys have already experienced a brand’

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“No, these people do not need to be branded,” says criminal lawyer Jorgen Van Laer, who defends ‘Paterberg’ in the Reuzegom trial. “That is something from the Middle Ages, that no longer belongs to our society. In their personal sphere, all those boys have already experienced that brand. In the village where my client grew up, he can no longer show himself. That is already a kind of prison. He has been spit out by much of his social network, except for his girlfriend, family and best friends. While that boy today has a very well-developed ethical compass.”

Van Laer also knows that public opinion is largely merciless. “I regret that. People who haven’t read the file don’t understand it. While we have been face to face with the bourgeois parties, and we have seen some kind of understanding there. If Sanda’s mother gives the president a hug after his last words, who is the average citizen left to pass judgment? I must say, that was a special moment. A deep process can reach that level of purification.”

What exactly will happen on Monday?

“Everyone has already spoken, except Sanda Dia’s mother and father. That will now happen for the first time. Furthermore, all parties can respond to each other’s pleas, including the Public Prosecution Service, and the defense will then have the last word. I do expect something from the Public Prosecution Service. We don’t have to make victims of the Reuzegommers, but we have already heard a lot of suffering there. The media frenzy has had a huge impact.”

Was there a media frenzy?

“Of course. The file was leaked at an early stage and was always presented unilaterally in the press. People kept talking about ‘murderers’ and ‘racism’. But that’s out of the question. Not murder, not racism. The audience has been whipped up.”

Yet your client pleads guilty, as one of seven of the eighteen defendants.

“On certain charges. Not the administration of poisonous substances, because no one knew the harmful effect of the fish oil that was used at baptism. Not even most doctors. And that oil is the primary cause of death. My client also pleads not guilty to the guilty omission. For that you need to know that the physical integrity of a person is in serious danger. And he didn’t know that. On arrival at the log cabin in Vorselaar, Sanda was in the best shape of the three shafts.”

But that’s where it all went wrong.

“That only happens when it is evening. My client only comes out of the cabin, so with Sanda, when the discussion starts: should we put him on fire to recover, or is it so serious that he has to go to the hospital? My client belongs to the second group. And they took Sanda to the hospital. So my client has not committed a culpable omission, but has provided assistance to a person in need.”

What are you pleading guilty to?

“On two counts. There is talk of unintentional killing and degrading treatment. They hang together here. You are guilty of accidental killing if you commit a careless act that results in someone’s death. So that’s an accident. Those guys didn’t know what their actions could do. My client pleads guilty here, even though he spent much of the baptism in the cabin himself. The file shows that. Everyone knew the progression. It was clear in the script what exactly was going to happen. And that went too far. Anyone who participated in this can be blamed for accidental killing and degrading treatment.”

Then all eighteen would have to plead guilty?

“I’m not going to say that and I can’t determine that. But I do think that anyone who has had an active act in baptism has participated in a ritual that has led to death. And those who cooperated had experienced it themselves in the past or helped organize it. And then I come to the aspect of degrading treatment. For that I look at a judgment of the court of appeal in Liège from 2018, which indicated the limits of student baptism. The starting point is that people may voluntarily allow themselves to be humiliated.”

One of the defendants arrives for the trial.  Image Eva Beeusaert

<cite class="artstyle__figcaption__caption">One of the defendants arrives for the trial.</cite><span class="artstyle__figcaption__credit">Image Eva Beeusaert</span>

Is that right?

“Of course. The same goes for sadomasochism: it’s fine if someone chooses to be humiliated. But there is something else essential in that judgment: nothing must be done that jeopardizes personal integrity. And permission is required from the academic government. It certainly wasn’t here. And eating raw meat, like that mouse in the blender, is beyond the limit. Then baptism ceases, and we find ourselves in criminal law.”

Do you blame KU Leuven for something?

“Yes, he was already aware of that thorough judgment from Liège in 2018. And Reuzegom did not want to sign the baptismal charter. The university could therefore have warned students: if you do not sign the baptism charter and violate the integrity of a person, you run the risk of ending up in criminal law.”

You also want to provoke a debate about baptism itself.

“My client wants that. He finds that very important. My client really doesn’t think a baptism is acceptable anymore. Today’s student baptism is no longer an issue. This shows once again what a courageous path he has taken. The maturity with which he thinks about this is nice to see. He really realizes what happened. And that is why he advocates initiation rituals that stay far away from humiliation. Let students go out to get to know each other better. But stop with the student baptism that exists now.”

Even self-chosen humiliation is outdated as a starting student.

“Absolute. He now finds that incomprehensible. It was part of his plea that he would like to see that changed. Only in the army and at the university is hazing still accompanied by alcohol, humiliation and violence. The army wants to test which meat they have in the tub in case they ever find themselves in a life-threatening situation, but things can get out of hand there too. Think of the movie A Few Good Men, with Jack Nicholson. It is certainly no longer appropriate for students. We need stronger rules.”


“The university could supervise better. Define rules. Provide an aid station. There needs to be more openness. Because when I read the anthology of recent incidents, I know: there will be more deaths, that’s for sure. We need new standards. There must be progressive insight. Norms and values ​​evolve.”

Have you been baptized yourself?

“Yes, I studied law in Antwerp for the first few years and was baptized quite hard. I was comatose on the floor at the end. When my sister came to get me, the others asked her to pick up the ‘doormat’. I have long defended the ritual, because it can also forge a strong bond of friendship. That was the intention with Sanda, by the way. That is why there can be no question of racism.”

No? Wasn’t he dealt with harder because he was black?

“That is really a big lie. Sanda Dia had perseverance, that’s why he didn’t cheat with that fish oil, but drank it all. The other two shafts cheated that night and just spewed out some of the oil.”

Perhaps they had been given that tip.

“No, they knew they were taking a risk by cheating. And at Reuzegom everyone was humiliated, that had nothing to do with skin color. The pattern was humiliation, not racism at all.”

Finally, you also personally testified last week about the death of your sister.

“I don’t want to put too much emphasis on that, but I did indeed lose my sister fourteen years ago. She was thirty and died suddenly, due to an external factor. I testified about that because I wanted to connect with Sanda Dia’s father. I felt he had sunk in after the many testimonies and interventions, and I want to express that I can feel his pain. He also listened, and I think that is very important.”

Has there been a rapprochement between the mother and the father?

“No, we have always respected the family’s wish not to look that up. At the trial, I’ve seen them nod to my client to show they appreciate his testimony and insight into guilt. That was important to him.”

What verdict and penalties do you expect?

“That’s up to the court. The public disgrace is already a huge punishment for my client and the others – a pre-punishment, so to speak. Penalties seem defensible to me. It certainly wasn’t murder, so I don’t think anyone will have to go to prison for years. As far as I am concerned, prison sentences are not an issue in any case. That can be important to Sanda Dia’s family, and I understand that. But they need to know that these boys will carry this drama with them until the end of their days. It is unlikely that the parents will take comfort from that, I sincerely understand that. But it is.”


Born in 1981 in Borgerhout

Law degree RUG 2005

Lawyer at Bannister Advocaten

If you want some motivation, then here is your way: Frases Positivas

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