Hazing turned tragic? Death of 6 students perplexes Portugal

LISBON (AFP) - Was it freak seas? Hazing amounting to a crime? Or something else? Portugal is struggling to uncover the reasons why six university students drowned in the middle of the night off a deserted beach near Lisbon last month, with suspicions crystalising that they were taking part in a ritualised induction turned tragic.

That theory has been bolstered by the stubborn silence of a seventh student who was the sole survivor, and media investigations that bit by bit have revealed details.

"The fate of these young people swallowed up by the waves... forces us to pause. We must ban university hazings," a former Portuguese president, Mario Soares, wrote in an op-ed published on Tuesday.

He, like many of the country's newspapers, dismissed the assertion made on Monday by the secretary of state for youth affairs, Emidio Guerreiro, that the drownings "didn't result from university hazing" but were rather "a police matter".

The comment by Guerreiro, who used to be a student association president in Coimbra, a central university town where hazings have a long tradition, were seen by some as an attempt to protect the imposed rites of passage on undergraduates, which are often characterised by humiliation and physical abuse.

The deaths occurred on Dec 14, when the group of students plunged into the winter surf off Meco, a small village south of Lisbon where they had rented a house.

The first body was found washed up on a nearby beach the next day. Over the next 12 days, as families frantically searched, the other corpses were discovered one by one. Four women and two men perished, all aged between 21 and 24.

The only survivor was a 23-year-old student who raised the alarm but who has so far refused to tell investigators what happened that night.

His family said he was now ready to break his silence, after a criminal investigation was opened and the grieving families pleaded to know the circumstances.

Portuguese media reported the young man might have had a responsibility in the deaths, by organising a hazing ritual that went wrong.

Newspapers have unleashed editorials lashing the long-tolerated university student rites as obsolete and cruel, with the Diario de Noticias writing: "Humiliating somebody is a violent act."

But student bodies protest that hazing is a valuable mechanism to create solidarity and a shared identity. The country's education minister is to hear their argument in a meeting on Thursday.

Although hazing used to be limited to the faculties in Coimbra, in the past couple of decades the practice has spread across Portugal, especially to private universities that have been created.

"In institutions with less history and tradition, we are seeing an attempt to compensate by giving greater importance to this ritualisation," one sociologist, Elisio Estanque, explained.

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