Bucharest: His captives were frozen, crippled and traumatised, but communist-era prison boss Alexandru Visinescu, who goes on trial Wednesday in Romania, says all he did was to follow orders.
A frail-looking man of 88, Visinescu is charged with crimes against humanity during his 1956-1963 rule at the notorious Ramnicu Sarat facility, dubbed "the prison of silence," because detainees were held in solitary confinement. He faces life behind bars if convicted.
The trial in the Romanian capital is a rare attempt to address massive abuses during decades of communist rule across eastern Europe. One commentator called the trial "the Romanian Nuremberg," referring to the famous trials of Nazi leaders after World War II, and about 30 other prison officers are also being probed.
Sitting in his central Bucharest studio apartment, surrounded by pictures of his mother, and of himself as a child, then as an officer of Romania`s repressive Securitate force, Visinescu calls himself a scapegoat.
"I wasn`t responsible for the rules in the prison. I followed my superiors` orders," he told AFP.
Visinescu oversaw an "extermination regime" in the east of the country, prosecutors say. The prison housed intellectuals, dissidents, priests and others deemed enemies by the Communist Party. At least 14 inmates died following mistreatment during Visinescu`s term.
The accused man, who turns 89 on Saturday, says history is being twisted and that everything he did met the standards of the day.
"If I really made mistakes, why did they keep me there for eight years? They always gave me very good evaluations," he said.
The fact the trial is starting when only one former prisoner from Ramnicu Sarat remains alive demonstrates how long it took Romania to come to grips with its past. But Visinescu says that as a result, his record cannot be properly understood.
"It`s incredible. Why didn`t they do this when former prisoners were still alive, so that they could recount exactly what happened? There is a difference between true witness testimony and suppositions," he said.
For Visinescu, the path to becoming the defendant in a historic human rights trial started with his hardscrabble village childhood in the south of the country. He never knew his father and his impoverished mother put him up for adoption. By the age of seven, he had to work.
Military service, which some young men would dread, was more like salvation for Visinescu. It was then that he was recruited by the Communist regime.
"I knew what I`d lived through and where I came from and I liked this," he recalled. "At the time, what mattered was not having studied, but having the right (working class) origins. I`d finished six classes when they put me into the Securitate officers school."
After several years in the feared secret police, where he says he recruited informers for the regime, Visinescu was made commandant at Ramnicu Sarat.
For the loyal young officer, this seemed like an important promotion.
But "being sent there was my bad luck," he says. "Because of that, today I`m an accused man."