A trial that some have dubbed the “Romanian Nuremberg” opens Wednesday in Bucharest, with the head of a brutal communist-era labour camp, known as the “prison of silence,” charged with crimes against humanity.
Alexandru Visinescu, 88, is accused of running an “extermination regime” at the notorious Ramnicu Sarat prison in the east of the country, which he headed from 1956 to 1963.
At least 14 inmates died during his tenure. Many more were left permanently traumatised or disfigured from the camp dubbed “the prison of silence,” because detainees were held in solitary confinement and not allowed visitors.
Valentin Cristea, the only living survivor of the camp, remembers “the cold, the isolation, the hunger.”
Now 84, the former engineer was convicted in 1956 of “divulging state secrets” to an aunt who was a member of the anti-communist resistance. He spent seven years at the camp.
The widow of another detainee, general Ion Eremia who died in 2003, recalls the treatment of her husband who was sentenced to 14 years in prison and 25 years’ forced labour for writing a satirical novel about Stalin.
– ‘Romanian Nuremberg’ –
Rights activists hope Visinescu’s trial will be the first of many, with 35 other former communist officials in prosecutors’ crosshairs.
Visinescu says he is innocent and that he was only “obeying orders.” If convicted, he faces life in prison.
The trial comes a quarter century after the downfall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed, along with his wife Elena, on Christmas Day 1989, following an impromptu trial in which they were convicted of genocide.
Most communist-era officials went unpunished. Although a few top leaders were also convicted of genocide, many later saw their charges reduced and were later released on health grounds.
But pressure has mounted for a true accounting of the regime’s crimes, which included the imprisonment of more than 600,000 dissidents from the late 1940s onward.
A first complaint by the IICCMRE in 2006 against 210 former prison guards was rejected by prosecutors.
But in 2013, new prosecutors indicated they were finally prepared to listen, accepting a fresh demand for Visinescu and others to go on trial.
– ‘Must personalise evil’ –
Public response to the trial has been muted, amid nostalgia for the communist era and disillusionment with the country’s entry into the European Union in 2007.
For many victims, any trials would come too late, since most of the accused are already in their eighties.
But historian Adrian Cioroianu says that what matters is “that these crimes are punished and that the truth is re-established.”
Preda, at the IICCMRE, also believes it is never too late to seek justice.
Romania is an exception in central Europe, where communist-era leaders have largely escaped punishment.
Former Polish strongman Wojciech Jaruzelski enjoyed a quiet retirement after the end of the Cold War, while the trial of Bulgarian dictator Todov Jivkov ended in acquittal.
Visinescu’s trial is expected to last several months, possibly even years.
Health concerns could prove an obstacle. His lawyer, Dan Petre, told AFP he was concerned by his client’s “precarious physical and mental state,” a point that sources close to the case say could be used to argue for an acquittal.