‘Romanian Nuremberg’ trial opens

People walk inside Ramnicu Sarat prison. Picture: Getty
People walk inside Ramnicu Sarat prison. Picture: Getty
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A ROMANIAN man has appeared in court charged with crimes against humanity in the first day of a historic trial, as the country comes to terms with crimes committed during its years under Communist rule.

Radu Preda, head of the organisation charged with investigating Communist-era crimes in Romania, said the significance of the trial of Alexandru Visinescu, 88, amounted to a “Romanian Nuremberg”.

Visinescu ran the Ramnicu Sarat prison camp from 1955 to 1963. Here political inmates were starved, beaten and exposed to freezing temperatures as part of a brutal punishment regime that prosecutors have said was designed to wear them down and kill them.

Frail and wearing a blue suit, the former camp commandant made only a brief appearance in court yesterday before the trial was adjourned to next month.

Prosecutors have alleged Visinescu ran an “extermination regime” aimed at “destroying prisoners physically, by depriving them of medical care, food and heating and inflicting abuse”.

Ramnicu Sarat held dissidents, opposition politicians and anyone else the Romanian authorities considered a threat to Communist order.

“Deaths occurred from a slow and effective process during which they were physically and mentally tortured,” prosecutors added, with at least 14 people dying during Visinescu’s tenure as camp commandant.

Investigators have said that with many of the inmates serving long prison sentences and exposure to years of a programme consisting of physical and mental abuse, they had little chance of surviving.

Visinescu has denied the charges, and said he was only obeying orders.

“I wasn’t responsible for the rules in the prison. I followed my superiors’ orders. If I really made mistakes, why did they keep me there for eight years?”

He said conditions at his prison were comparable to most Romanian jails at the time, and he also questioned the impartiality of the court.

Visinescu’s trial is the first involving one of the commanders of a prison system that jailed about 600,000 Romanians from 1947 to the fall of Communist system in 1989.

Cosmin Budeanca, an investigator into Communist-era crimes, said Visinescu’s trial was “necessary for society” and called it a victory for moral justice.

“Victims have waited 25 years to see this person sent to face justice,” he added.

Since Romania’s 1989 revolution that overthrew the autocratic regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, few senior Communists or members of the feared security services have faced prosecution for crimes committed during the days of the one-party state.

Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad in the wake of the revolution after a military court found them guilty of genocide, but their deaths failed to trigger further investigations into communist-era crimes.

Visinescu is the first of 35 people the Romanian state want to bring to trial.