Trial of prison chief stirs memories of Romania's Stalinist past

Wed Sep 24, 2014 1:27pm EDT
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By Radu-Sorin Marinas

CAMPINA Romania (Reuters) - Valentin Cristea still remembers what life was like in one of the most grisly jails under Romania's former communist rulers, where political prisoners were sent.

"We were not allowed to sit on the bed until it was time to sleep at 10 pm," said Cristea, now 84, who spent six years in Ramnicu Sarat prison in eastern Romania and lost 20 kg (44 pounds) during his detention.

"Three elements were severe there: loneliness, which can drive you nuts, extreme cold during winter and food scarcity," Cristea, believed to be the only survivor still alive from the jail, told Reuters.

Dozens of political prisoners perished at the jail, which between 1956 and 1963 was commanded by Alexandru Visinescu, whose trial for crimes against humanity began in a Bucharest court on Wednesday.

Prosecutors have accused Visinescu, who turns 89 on Saturday, of subjecting inmates to beatings and starvation, denying them medical treatment and heating. He has said he only followed orders and blamed the country's Stalinist leadership.

The Institute for Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of Romanian Exile (IICCMER) says it has given the court evidence of Visinescu's direct involvement in 12 deaths.

Visinescu's case is only the start, the institute says. Investigations are under way into four other former prison commanders and IICCMER has said it has a list of 35 prison officials now aged between 81 and 99 who committed crimes.

Up to 2 million people are believed to have been killed, imprisoned, deported or relocated in Romania between 1945 and 1989 under the dictatorships of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu, one of Eastern Europe's most repressive.   Continued...

Valentin Cristea, 84, believed to be the only survivor still alive from the communist-era Ramnicu Sarat prison in eastern Romania, gestures during an interview with Reuters in Campina September 23, 2014. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel