Mother of Sanda Dia writes open letter asking for peace and to let her son's soul rest

Annemie De Vel, the mother of Sanda Dia, wrote an open letter that her lawyer distributed on Friday afternoon. In a bid to stay out of what she describes as the "media frenzy" concerning her son's death and the subsequent court cases, she has asked for peace and privacy.

Sanda Dia's memory

“Sanda's soul must be able to rest. To regard him as an underprivileged loser is to do an injustice to his memory,” says De Vel in a passage from her open letter. Following the latest trial connected to Dia's untimely death, the resurgence of media involvement and discussions about the criminal justice system in Belgium, De Vel's letter gives a personal insight into her feelings on the matter.

"This must stop. Sanda's soul must be able to rest," she writes. "I understand all the reactions, outrage and calls for justice. But there are real people behind it. Behind the Sanda Dia depicted in the newspapers and on the screens is a real boy, an average Belgian boy who grew up in a nice house in a quiet neighbourhood, played football, had hobbies, took Latin and went to college, everyone's friend. To regard Sanda as an underprivileged loser is to do an injustice to his memory."

Students attend a silent protest organised by student association Karibu and Belgian Youth Against Racism in 2020 ©BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS MAETERLINCK
Students attend a silent protest organised by student association Karibu and Belgian Youth Against Racism in 2020 ©BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS MAETERLINCK

Court ruling against the Reuzegommers

"What happened that night during the baptism was investigated long and thoroughly," De Vel continues. "The court heard all sides of the story equally, weighed them carefully and ruled on them." While Dia's mother has made peace with the ruling over her son's death, social unrest has thrust his name and memory into the public sphere, polarising Belgium.

Many called the sentencing for those involved with Dia's death too lenient. The 20-year-old died of hypothermia and organ failure in 2018 after being forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol, swallow live goldfish, and finally drink fish oil to aid in expelling the goldfish while standing half-naked outside in a pool of freezing water as part of a hazing ritual with the Reuzegom fraternity. After hours in the freezing pool, Dia went into cardiac arrest and collapsed. The 18 individuals involved with the hazing were sentenced to pay a fine of 400 euros each and carry out 200-300 hours of community service.

A new trial and a new sentence

A famous Flemish YouTuber with the alias Acid (real name Nathan Vandergunst (24)) took to social media to denounce the court ruling as unjust. On his platform, which boasts half a million followers, he revealed the identities of the accused in a widely circulated video. He was subsequently sued by a former member of Reuzegom and, on Thursday, was handed a three-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of 800 euros. Additionally, he must pay 20,000 euros in damages to the former Reuzegommer's family.

During an interview following the court's verdict, Vandergunst said he believed the 20,000 euros should go to Dia's family. "That is money that I would have preferred to see appear on the account of Sanda Dia's family rather than on the account of the family that had a stake in erasing traces after the student hazing. But money always wins in Belgium," he said to the press after leaving the courtroom.

Amidst the protests, discussions on social justice and media involvement this case has aroused in Belgium, De Vel hopes Vandergunst's trial will be the final chapter in her son's death. She has not spoken publicly during the five-year sentencing period until today. "Justice for Sanda can be achieved by putting a stop to outdated hazing rituals," De Vel writes. "That cannot be bought off with fines or community service. I am grateful to everyone for their good intentions and hope that Sanda gets the rest he deserves."

Mural of Sanda Dia in Leuven (2023)
Mural of Sanda Dia in Leuven (2023)

Reuzegom disbanded following Dia's tragic death in 2018 and had faced previous charges of animal abuse in 2013.



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