Romania starts trial against former communist jailer

BUCHAREST Mon Jul 14, 2014 10:54am EDT

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BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A Romanian court began trial on Monday against a former communist jailer charged with crimes against humanity, the first case of its kind since the fall of communism 25 years ago.

Up to 2 million people are believed to have been killed, imprisoned, deported or relocated in Romania during 1945 and 1989 under one of Eastern Europe's most repressive communist regimes. Historians estimate up to 100,000 people, including priests, teachers, doctors and politicians died in jail.

The trial against Alexandru Visinescu, 88, a retired lieutenant-colonel who ran the Ramnicu Sarat prison in southeastern Romania from 1956 to 1963, is part of the European Union state's efforts to grapple with its communist past.

Romania overthrew and executed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in a bloody revolt in 1989. With the exception of several officials implicated in the revolt, no significant communist party figures and no jail commanders have gone on trial since then.

Prosecutors have accused Visinescu of subjecting prisoners to beatings and starvation, as well as denying them medical treatment and heating.

He is charged with genocide, which is listed under crimes against humanity in the Romanian penal code and refers to attempts to fully or partially destroy a community or national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

The Institute for the Investigation of the Communist Crimes and the Memory of Romanian Exile (IICCMER) has said it gave prosecutors proof Visinescu was directly involved in 12 deaths.

The former commander has said he was only following orders and blamed the country's leadership of those years.

Visinescu was not present at the trial on Monday. Under Romanian legislation, defendants can invoke various reasons for not showing up for hearings, including health-related, until courts issue bench warrants.

On Monday, a Bucharest court set the next trial date for July 24. Investigations are ongoing for four other former commanders and IICCMER has said it has a list of 35 prison officials now aged 81-99 who committed crimes.

Unlike most of its former eastern European communist neighbours, Romania has yet to finish a process of returning or compensating Romanians whose assets were seized under communism.

Many communist-era officials are still in public life, continuing to wield political and business influence, even though current President Traian Basescu condemned crimes committed during that era in a 2006 speech.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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