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A Quarter-Century Late, "Romanian Nuremberg" Finally Begins

A full 25 years after the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the brutal commandant of a labor camp for political prisoners is finally being tried for alleged atrocities.

A screen shot image of Visinescu last year
A screen shot image of Visinescu last year
Alexandre Lévy

BUCHAREST — Born in 1925, Alexandru Visinescu lived a quiet, remorseless and very comfortable life until last year. The former commandant of the Ramnicu Sarat forced labor camp in eastern Romania was enjoying the equivalent of a $1,700 monthly pension, eight times more than the minimum pension paid to most Romanians of his age.

It was a pension he believed he definitely deserved because he did nothing more than "follow orders" at the camp where political opponents to the Communist regime were detained. Researchers from the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER) beg to differ.

After a first, failed attempt to bring him to court, last year IICCMER leaked the story of the abuses Visinescu and more than 30 of his then-colleagues committed: tortures, summary executions, food and sleep deprivation, beatings, exposure to the cold, etc. The list is so long and terrifying that the justice system spent a good time of time pondering how the crimes should be classified. "Genocide" or "crimes against humanity?" Then, encouraged by public opinion, the justice machine ignited.

Visinescu has the dubious distinction of topping this "list of 35" criminals. His trial, which some are already dubbing the "Romanian Nuremberg," began last month, 25 years after the fall of repressive Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, and almost 50 years after the atrocities for which he is being tried. After Visinescu appeared in court, the case was adjourned until October 22.

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Ceausescu in a 1982 speech in Moscow. Photo: Wikipedia

Visinescu, who just turned 89, is accused of having established an "extermination regime" in Ramnicu Sarat, which he commanded between 1956 and 1963. At least 14 inmates died in that camp, which was nicknamed "the hell of silence."

"These criminals were left in peace on purpose, and most of them died in their beds," Octav Bjoza, director of the Association of Former Political Prisoners in Romania, says of those accused of the violence and torture of camp inmates. "Now at least some of their crimes are being brought to light. And that's important."

Very few of their victims, however, will experience the satisfaction of seeing these people called to the witness box. Of the 600,000 political opponents jailed between 1945 and 1989, almost 100,000 died in the camps. Some 10,000 were summarily executed, their bodies buried in the wilderness. Those who escaped the "meat-crushing machine" of the Securitate, Communist Romania's secret police agency, are now either very old and weak, or dead.

Still living to testify

Except for Valentin Cristea, an 84-year-old man who will certainly rise against the former commander in court to tell of the conditions of his detention, of his fellow inmates' hunger strikes and the daily deprivations and humiliations. A former engineer, convicted of "divulging state secrets," Cristea spent seven years there before he was freed. He knows he is lucky, very lucky indeed, to still be alive.

"I wish Romanians only saw in this trial an act of justice, of a free and independent justice, though it arrives 20 years too late," says Andrei Muraru, who headed IICCMER between 2012 and 2014. This young historian born in 1982 doesn't blow his own horn, but it is thanks to him and the IICCMER revelations that this trial is happening at all, and it could be the first of many.

Concerning the identity of the others in the "list of 35," Muraru limits himself to saying that they are only employees of the Directorate of Romanian Prisons who committed "crimes and abuses for political reasons."

But the second name on the list is well-known in Romania. It's Ion Ficior, 85, who headed the labor camp of Periprava, a village in the Danube Delta, between 1958 and 1963. He is accused of killing 103 people.

Romanian journalists confront Visinescu last year. YouTube

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