Former communist prison chief goes on trial in Romania

The former chief of a notoriously brutal communist-era prison camp in Romania went on trial Wednesday for alleged crimes against humanity.

Bucharest: The former chief of a notoriously brutal communist-era prison camp in Romania went on trial Wednesday for alleged crimes against humanity.

It was the first such attempt since the fall of communism nearly a quarter century ago to bring to justice anyone from the leadership of a prison system that locked up 600,000 dissidents between 1947 and 1989.

Alexandru Visinescu, 88, appeared in court wearing a dark blue three-piece suit and a grey hat. He says he is innocent and is being made a scapegoat after having done nothing but the job he was told to do at the Ramnicu Sarat facility, which was nicknamed "the prison of silence".

"How can I have confidence in justice after everything they`ve said about me?" he told AFP as he arrived in court Wednesday.

Prosecutors allege Visinescu oversaw an "extermination regime," maltreating inmates "to destroy them physically, by depriving them of medical care, food and heating and inflicting abuse". At least 14 people died during his tenure.

Visinescu, who turns 89 on Saturday, faces a life sentence if convicted. 

Survivors have described him as a "brute". 

The only remaining living former inmate, Valentin Cristea, has described how detainees were forbidden to talk, leading to the prison`s grim nickname.

"It was against the rules to approach the walls to prevent us using morse code to talk to each other," he told AFP.

Another detainee, imprisoned for 14 years for writing a satirical novel about Soviet dictator Stalin, was forced to stand for hours in icy water during winter "and could barely walk when he came out of prison," his widow, Nicoleta Eremia, has said.

Radu Preda, the head of the Romanian Institute for Research into Crimes of Communism, said the trial was "particularly important because for the first time an instrument of communist terror is facing justice".

Another 35 people accused of similar crimes are under investigation, with trials possibly following.

But many in Romania think it all comes too late, given the age of the accused and the small chance of them serving meaningful prison sentences.

Visinescu`s trial is expected to last several months, possibly even years, and his lawyer is already raising the issue of health problems.

Dan Petre told AFP he was concerned by his client`s "precarious physical and mental state".

Nevertheless, the trial is a landmark in former communist Europe, where leaders accused of abuses have largely escaped punishment. 

Former Polish strongman Wojciech Jaruzelski enjoyed a quiet retirement after the end of the Cold War and died in May this year, while the trial of Bulgarian dictator Todov Jivkov ended in acquittal. 

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