Student hazing under spotlight in Portugal after six swept out to sea

Only leader of club avoided death when giant wave hit beach in small hours

A wave hits Meco beach, where six students believed to have been taking part in an initiation rite died in December.
A wave hits Meco beach, where six students believed to have been taking part in an initiation rite died in December.FRANCISCO LEONG (AFP)

In the early hours of December 15, a giant wave hit Meco beach, 40 kilometers south of Lisbon. Six college students standing on the shore, wearing traditional black university capes, were swept away to their deaths. Only the seventh member of the expedition, 23-year-old João Gouveia, survived. After groping in the sand for the hat where he remembered he had left his cellphone, Gouveia called the police, who found him half-drowned, the weekly Expresso reported.

Hours later, as Gouveia was discharged from hospital, the first body washed up on the shore: it was Tiago Campos, 21, whose neck had been broken by the brutal impact of the wave.

The entire country was shaken by a tragedy that was initially blamed on fate, bad luck and the deadly force of the sea in that particular part of the country.

But following the funerals and the tributes, and the somewhat odd silence from the sole survivor — who simply told the police that they had been caught off guard by the giant wave — the parents of the other victims began asking the obvious question: what was a group of students doing at 1am on a freezing cold night on a deserted beach, wearing their university capes?

For days now, there has been a growing certainty that they were there for a hazing ritual reserved for members of an exclusive university club.

One victim’s neck had been broken by the brutal impact of the wave

This has stirred a great deal of controversy over a practice that continues to be widespread in Portugal thanks to extensive student acceptance and a permissive attitude from academic and political leaders alike.

All the young people at Meco beach that night were students at the private Universidad Lusófona de Lisboa, and they all belonged to COPA, or the Organizing Committee for Academic Hazing. While it may sound like a bit of a joke, in Portugal it is taken quite seriously. The young man who survived was the head of this committee, who holds the top title of Dux (Duke).

Together the seven of them had rented a house a few kilometers from the beach for the weekend. A few neighbors reported seeing youngsters doing push-ups in the garden under the orders of the Duke, who walked around bearing a wooden spoon in his hand — a symbol of authority in this little world. The owner of a beach bar told the weekly Sábado that he noticed the seven heading out towards the sea, in single file, around 12.30am.

The television station TVI has used testimonies from other students who have been through similar initiation rites to reconstruct the events of that night. The six students under the Duke’s command had to undergo a particular trial in order to climb one more rung of the committee hierarchy: stand with their backs to the sea, shoulder to shoulder, blindfolded. Standing in front of them, without a blindfold, was the Duke, that is to say, João Gouveia, the sole survivor.

Basing their actions on a tale by Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa, Hora do diabo (The devil’s hour), in which Satan appears before a woman on the night of a full moon on December 15 — the night of the tragedy was also December 15, and there was also a full moon — Gouvela began to ask the six a series of questions. Each time one of them gave the wrong answer, he had to take one step back towards the sea. This went on for over an hour. Reporters for TVI say a few other students who had been secretly called in by the Duke slid quietly up to the six to whisper in their ears and scare them even more.

What were the seven doing on a freezing night on a deserted beach wearing capes?

If so, there are more witnesses to the tragedy who are keeping quiet about what exactly happened.

For now, the judicial police are to interrogate Gouvela this week to determine whether it was all a result of a stupid initiation rite and if so, whether the victims were coerced. Relatives of the dead students have already said they will be filing charges, and a lawyer for the families warned that the investigation would have to be extended to the university itself, to see whether any authorities should be held accountable.

Meanwhile, supporters of hazing are trying to play down the Meco accident and portray the practice as a form of integration. Even Justice Minister Paula Teixeira da Cruz stepped into the debate with the following statement several days ago: “It makes no sense to prohibit practical jokes that can, in certain cases, even be nice. A ban is not the solution.”

An eye-opening 2010 documentary by Bruno Moraes Cabral titled Praxis shows what some of these jokes are like. They included acts such as pretending to have sex with another recruit under the gaze of hundreds of students; eating hot peppers while wearing a clown hat; walking around on all fours in a stable full of cows and rolling around on a road covered with mud and fertilizer — always under the watchful eye of the veterans in their black capes.

Education Minister Nuno Crato has met with student associations in the past few days to deal with the matter, although no specific measure has been announced to date.

Mário Soares, the veteran Socialist politician, now 90, wrote an article in the Diário de la República newspaper stating clearly that “hazing is incomprehensible and unacceptable […] It is a kind of fascism. It should be banned.”

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