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Romania reopens door on brutal communist era

Romanian authorities have begun filing genocide charges against officials allegedly behind communist-era crimes. But critics say that prosecutors are aiming too low.

Since the 1989 revolution that toppled Romania‘s communist government, only its leader, Nicolae Ceausescu; his wife; and a handful of their aides have been charged with crimes related to the country’s communist-era brutality.

That is, until last month.

Romanian authorities have begun issuing genocide charges against 35 individuals named on a list given to state prosecutors in July by the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER), an organization set up by the Romanian government in 2006 to address crimes of the communist era. The charges against Alexandru Visinescu, a former prison warden, and Ion Ficior, a one-time labor camp commander, mark a major step toward addressing the crimes of the communist period.

But some experts worry that the Romanian government’s efforts aim too low, only at lower-level officials in the former security apparatus. And some are even concerned that the charges being brought may hinder efforts to bring wrongdoers to justice.

A cruel history

Under the Romanian Communist Party’s rule, which lasted from 1947 to 1989, a vast secret police apparatus kept dossiers on a huge percentage of the population, and used torture and systematic abuse against perceived enemies of the state, with critics of the regime regularly beaten and put in jail. Of the estimated 617,000 political prisoners locked up in Romania during the communist era, some 120,000 died in jail.

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And despite their history, members of the security apparatus, like Mr. Visinescu, have continued to receive state pensions, adding to the discontent that many Romanians feel about the situation.

“Romania had one of the cruelest communist regimes in the region,” says Laura Ștefan, an anti-corruption expert and a former director in the Romanian Ministry of Justice.

“We had 50 years of communism, and then for the last 20 years the people responsible were left alone. Today they have pensions, nice housing,” Ms. Ștefan adds.

But that started to change early last month, when Visinescu, who is now 88 and lives in retirement in the Romanian capital, was charged with crimes of genocide related to activities dating from the 1950s and ’60s, when he was head of Ramnicu Sarat prison, which was notorious for holding political prisoners under the communist regime. Visinescu is accused of direct involvement in six deaths.

And last week, authorities brought similar charges against 85-year-old Mr. Ficior, who oversaw Periprava, a labor camp in the east of Romania where earlier this month authorities confirmed the discovery of a mass grave.

The discovery revealed the “brutality and primitivism in the management of the colony,” wrote IICCMER chief Andrei Muraru in a statement to the press.

‘Only small cogs’

Still, many Romanians feel that to date little has been done to address the crimes of the communist period, nor punish those responsible for the worst excesses.

“There has been a collective amnesia, which politicians have participated in,” says Vladimir Tismaneanu, a professor at the University of Maryland who headed a 2006-07 government commission to examine communist-era crimes.

The commission was formed after Traian Basescu, Romania’s president, officially condemned the communist regime. It wasn’t until March 2012, however, that Romania changed the statute of limitations for serious crimes, allowing for the prosecution of those whose crimes went back more than 40 years.

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Romania’s parliament also moved to reduce state support for communist-era crimes, late last month approving a draft law whereby former communist-era bosses found guilty of grave human rights abuses would have to pay up to 70 percent of their monthly incomes to surviving former political prisoners. Around 3,500 survivors are alive today.

Despite these developments many doubt the government’s willingness to go after higher-ranking officials, or cases related to the later days of communist rule, when some of those still in positions of power were coming through the ranks. 

“So far it is only small cogs in the communist machine, like Visinescu, that have been targeted, not the major figures from that period,” says Dr. Tismaneanu.

There have also been question marks raised over why it is only cases from the earlier years of the regime that have been targeted. Those involved, however, say that this is just the first step.

“The list of 35 names is a starting point,” says Adelina Tintariu, the deputy general manager of IICCMER.

“We have other crimes that took place in later periods of the communist regime to look into, but we had pressure to focus on this earlier period due to the advanced age of those involved.”

Visinescu, the prison warden, has told prosecutors he was simply following orders and that he never killed anyone. Speaking on national television, he said: “Yes, people died, but people died in other places, too.”

The wrong charge?

The charge of genocide leveled against Visinescu and Ficior has raised eyebrows, however, as the crime normally applies to attempts to eradicate ethnic and religious groups rather than political opponents.

“They should be charged with crimes against humanity, not genocide,” says Tismaneanu, who believes that the genocide charge may actually complicate any future trials by making the charges harder to prove and increasing the possibility of legal challenges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

“Visinescu is a murderer, I have no doubt, but the genocide charge is not right,” says Anca Cernea, whose father spent 17 years behind bars as a political prisoner, including a spell at Ramnicu Sarat prison.

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Ms. Cernea set up the Ioan Barbus Foundation, named in her father’s honor, to document the stories of those who suffered abuse under the previous regime, and to encourage strong political debate.

“I think that overall this is simply a PR operation by the government, but even if that is the case it is a good chance for us as a country to reflect on and remember what happened in those dark times,” she says.

Ms. Ștefan, the anti-corruption expert, agrees. “It is a disgrace that it has been left so long to get justice, but Romanians who lived through the communist times need closure and at the end of the day this might be the best we can get.”