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Europe

Dungeon of silence: Romania's struggle with the past

For the first time, a former intelligence officer in Romania got 20 years in prison for communist-era crimes. Yet most similar crimes are still far from going to trial as the country struggles with its past.

Even today, the 90-year-old former prison director Alexandru Visinescu shows no signs of remorse, despite the overwhelming evidence against him. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Romania handed down the final verdict in his trial. As the head of the Ramnicu Sarat prison, he was responsible for the death of numerous prisoners who had been mistreated, the court ruled. Now, he has been legally sentenced to 20 years in prison. In doing so, the Supreme Court has confirmed previous rulings in lower courts.

The former officer of the dreaded communist secret service, Securitate, pursued a defense strategy that is very widespread among members of totalitarian regimes: He claimed to be someone who was simply "following orders" and that he had only done as instructed.

Just a drop in the bucket

Alexandru Visinescu

Alexandru Visinescu was sentenced to 20 years in prison

Investigations have been under way in 30 cases of alleged torture during the communist era; those cases are still nowhere near a verdict. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Visinescu verdict is only a drop in the bucket for the victims of the communist regime as well as the children and relatives of the more than 600,000 political prisoners of that time.

"Is this the final sentence that we have waited for so long? Can today's sentencing of one intransigent, irresponsible, overzealous henchman outweigh the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Romanians in communist prisons?" asked the disappointed former prisoner Paul Lazarescu in an interview with DW. He spent nearly a decade of his life in jail after he had been arrested by the communists as a student and activist in the Christian Democratic Agrarian Party. After the end of communist dictatorship in 1989, the journalist and philologist also worked as editor-in-chief of two newspapers.

He criticized Romania's poor legal record in the investigation of communist crimes. "Where are the trials for the hordes of torturing interrogators who brutally beat us with wet ropes and maltreated us with electric shocks? What happened to the former fat cats of the communist party who actually made it possible for Securitate torturers to do as they pleased?"

Ramnicu Sarat Rumänien Bukarest Gefängnis

Romania's notorious Ramnicu Sarat prison - The Dungeon of Silence

The notorious dungeon of silence

As head of the Ramnicu Sarat prison between 1956 and 1963, Visinescu stood out as a particularly merciless law enforcement officer. His infamous political prison was known as "the dungeon of silence" because even speaking was prohibited there. The political prisons in communist Romania did not lag behind Soviet gulags in terms of brutality and torture. The torture of political detainees included starvation, cold, beatings, years of solitary confinement and sleep deprivation to extract forced confessions against fellow citizens, to break down the will of detainees or simply out of sadistic pleasure. The death of prisoners was frequently tolerated as part of the process.

Victims had suffered such deep shock that they still felt intimidated decades later. Only one former prisoner was willing to testify in the Visinescu trial. Many former prisoners believe that leading members of the communist regime are still part of the the political and economic elite of Romania and that they hold a protecting hand over the killers of Securitate.

In Romania, reconciliation with the past has been moving along sluggishly - both in terms of the communist dictatorship and the participation of the Romanian state in the Holocaust, which has only been officially recognized since 2003. Despite the progress made in processing the past, some people belonging to the cultural elite informally put any involvement into perspective, or simply deny it.

Ramnicu Sarat Rumänien Bukarest Gefängnis

In Ramnicu Sarat prison no one was permitted to speak

Historian Dobrincu: Trial sends a positive signal

In an interview with DW, the Romanian historian Dorin Dobrincu welcomes the Visinescu ruling. He says it is a sign that time has not run out for the crimes of the Communist dictatorship. He applauds it because it "provides justice for the direct and indirect victims." Furthermore, he claims it is "an important signal to society that time does not make all deeds undone."

For historians, the ruling is a positive sign that shows that Romanian society and justice are normalizing and democratizing - albeit slowly. Another advance with regard to reconciliation with the past is the fact that the justice system is investigating post-communist leaders in the early 1990s because of their role in violent miner protests.

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