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Romania Sentences Commander of Communist-Era 'Prison of Silence' to 20 Years

Alexandru Visinescu's landmark trial marks a victory for the families of the 12 men who died while in his custody.

by Pierre Longeray et Pierre-Louis Caron
Jul 24 2015, 8:20pm

Imagen por Robert Ghement/EPA

A Romanian court has sentenced a former Communist-era prison commander to 20 years in jail over his involvement in the deaths of at least 12 inmates at Ramnicu Sarat prison in the country's east.

Prosecutors had initially sought a 25-year jail sentence for 89-year-old Alexandru Visinescu, who ran the penitentiary from 1956 to 1963.

Visinescu was also ordered to pay 300,000 euros ($329,000) compensation to his victims' families, and was stripped of his military decorations.

Dubbed the "Romanian Nuremberg" — after the military tribunals that were set up to prosecute Nazi officials in the wake of World War II — Visinescu's ten-month trial marks the first sentencing of a former Communist-era prison chief since dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in a bloody uprising in 1989.

Visinescu, who was found guilty of "actions and inactions that resulted in the systematic persecution of detained political prisoners" inside the penitentiary, was not in court on Friday to hear the ruling. The court also found him guilty of "denying [prisoners their] fundamental human rights," according to daily Romania Libera.

Prison of Silence
Prisoners at Ramnicu Sarat — which was nicknamed the prison of silence, because inmates were detained in solitary confinement — were routinely beaten and starved under Visinescu's command, the court found. The detained intellectuals, dissidents, priests and other enemies of Ceausescu's regime were not allowed to communicate with each other, were forbidden from sitting on their beds in the daytime, and were denied heating and medical care.

Speaking to The Guardian in 2014, the widow of a former detainee recalled the abuse suffered by her husband, General Ion Eremia, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison and 25 years of forced labor for penning a satirical novel about former Soviet Union leader Stalin. 

"One day in winter, he was forced to stand for several hours with bare feet in a bucket of ice water," Nicoleta Eremia told The Guardian. "[He] could barely walk when he came out of prison."

View of Ramnicu Sarat prison. "What joy to learn more about the ICCMER project to build a memorial at Ramnicu Sarat @Crime_Communism" —Paul Brummell, British ambassador in Romania

"The sentence is late but nonetheless it is a moral victory for Visinescu's victims," said civilian plaintiff Anca Cernea, whose father and grandfather were both detained in the penitentiary.

Following his brutal stint at Ramnicu Sarat, Visinescu pursued his career as a prison officer during the communist regime. From 1965 to 1976, he occupied senior positions in the Ploiesti Penitentiary and at the Jilava Prison. Recently, Visinescu has been living in an apartment in central Bucarest, where he lives off a military pension of 3,200 lei ($800) a month.

Repressive regime
According to the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER), nearly 2 million people were killed, detained or deported in Romania from 1945 to1989, under the successive communist dictatorships of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceausescu. At least 100,000 people are believed to have died in prison during those years.

Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day in 1989 after a hasty trial. There have been no major trials of former senior communist officials or prison commanders held since then.

In July 103, IICCMER submitted a list of 35 former officials to the state, in the hope that they would be investigated for their role in the brutal repression. Four of the officers have been charged, including Visinescu and Ion Ficior, the former head of a labor camp in Periprava, where mass graves were found in 2013. Romanian prosecutors have charged Ficior with genocide.

Visinescu — who has shown no remorse, nor asked the family of his victims for forgiveness during his ten-month trial — has denied the charges against him, arguing that he was "only obeying orders." His court-appointed attorney Valentina Bornea said her client would "probably appeal."

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron and Pierre Longeray on Twitter : @pierrelouis_c , @PLongeray