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Romanian report Romanian report
by Euro Reporter
2014-11-07 11:37:38
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Romania hunger strike prompts inquiry into dissident’s death

The Romanian-born American ended his 17-day hunger strike Wednesday afternoon when the government, after years of delay and inaction, agreed to open a new investigation into the beating death of his father, a prominent dissident, in a communist-era prison three decades ago. “There is a high chance the next step is going to take a very long time,” said Mr. Ursu, 56. “It is a brand new fight.” A day earlier, in an ornate, narrow courtroom just across town, Alexandru Visinescu, the 89-year-old former camp commander of Ramnicu Sarat prison, sat quietly as the widow of a former prisoner, breaking into tears, told the judge how her husband weighed less than 75 pounds when he was released. His trial, the first brought against a government official from the communist era in nearly a quarter-century, is expected to last as long as two years. Romania has long had a reputation as one of the most reluctant among former communist states to uncover the dark pathways of its totalitarian past, particularly involving the Securitate, its dreaded secret police. But in recent years, with the announcement that Mr. Visinescu and perhaps others would finally be prosecuted, optimism sparked that Romania might at last be prepared to confront its brutal history.

But these two cases, and others lingering in the shadows, help explain why that spark has dimmed. Bureaucratic delays, withheld documents, unresponsive officials, public apathy and the slow grinding of investigations and litigation — while victims, perpetrators and witnesses grow old and vanish — have created a growing sense that a full reckoning may never come. “People are fed up and think nothing will ever happen,” said Marius Stan, a political scientist and former investigator who has spent years researching communist-era crimes. “Among the public, there is fatigue, disappointment.” Why Romania has been so much more reluctant to uncover its past is explained, in part, by the way the country moved out of communism. Romania is unlike Poland and other Eastern bloc states in that the toppling of its dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989 was in some ways more of a palace coup, with many of the former top officials surviving the transition and lingering in the government for years and decades. “The situation is very complicated,” said Cosmin Budeanca, director general of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile, the government-funded group responsible for searching the records made available to it for evidence of old crimes. It is a phrase he uses often. Mr. Budeanca, a historian, described the group’s task as sifting for evidence, building case files and presenting them to prosecutors, who can choose to do what they will with them. But only a portion of the relevant documents are open to the investigators, and many of the archives that are available are in a jumble, without indexes, a sea of paper.

The institute’s mandate is to deal first with the oldest cases, from the 1950s and ’60s. “Many files were destroyed,” Mr. Budeanca said. “It’s frustrating. It’s very frustrating.” Even in Mr. Visinescu’s case, only a handful of witnesses could be traced. Mr. Visinescu, a former prison commander, is accused of torture and of being involved in the deaths of at least 12 political prisoners between 1956 and 1963. For more recent cases, like that of Mr. Ursu’s father, it is even more difficult. “Current Romanian politicians are willing to bring charges against people from the ’50s and ’60s, but they are very reluctant to go after people from the Ceausescu period,” said Vladimir Tismaneanu, a professor of politics at the University of Maryland who headed a 2006 commission set up by the Romanian government to examine communist-era crimes. “The main issue is political will.” Romania is in the final 10 days of a presidential election. “Romania must really come to terms with its own recent history,” said Klaus Iohannis, the candidate of the center-right Christian Liberal Alliance. “It is a major problem, I think.” Mr. Iohannis promised to reignite a national debate on the topic, if elected, and he called for the creation of a national museum of the communist era.

His opponent, the current prime minister, Victor Ponta, representing the center-left Social Democrats, agreed that the past should not be forgotten, but he seemed eager that Romania look forward. “It is important to know the past, but I think now most of the political leadership is much more focused on the future,” he said. Mr. Budeanca was not holding his breath. “It is a sensitive topic in Romania, the time of the communists,” he said. “You hear about it from politicians only in the time of elections. After the election, all of this interest disappears. It is complicated.” Mr. Ursu’s father, Gheorghe, died in detention in 1985. According to later testimony, he was repeatedly beaten by guards and by other prisoners. Mr. Ursu and others say that the person most responsible for his death was Marin Pirvulescu, a former major in the Securitate who was in charge of interrogations. Mr. Ursu, who moved with his mother to Chicago in 1986, often returned to Romania after 1989 to petition the courts and politicians for justice. He staged a hunger strike in 2000, ending it when investigations were opened involving two militia members who were convicted of murder in 2003 for conducting some of the beatings. But Mr. Ursu continued to press for a case against Mr. Pirvulescu. The current hunger strike was begun, he said, when he had amassed what he considered to be a mountain of evidence, yet still hit resistance from Romanian officials. The gaunt and unshaven Mr. Ursu spent most of the past weeks on a sagging blue sofa in the ornate meeting room of the Group for Social Change, a nongovernmental organization in Bucharest. Dull light filled the room, silhouetting a chandelier and ornate plasterwork. The news that his demand had been met came with the weary knowledge, he said, that bringing the investigation to fruition, if that ever happens, will be the work of many, many months. “I hoped for this solution,” Mr. Ursu said, “but I didn’t think I had too many chances, to be honest.”

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Romania seeks to help overseas voters

Romania's government is taking steps to make sure that citizens living overseas have no trouble voting in the country's presidential runoff election on Nov. 16. The contestants will be Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who won about 40 percent of Sunday's vote, and Mayor of Sibiu Klaus Iohannis, who won about 30 percent. The winner will replace President Traian Basescu, who is stepping down after 10 years.

Hundreds of thousands of Romanians living overseas can vote in the countries where they are living, but they must do that in person at facilities such as Romanian embassies. On Sunday angry protests broke out in London and Paris after Romanians said they were unable to vote there, despite waiting in line for hours. Voters also complained of being unable to vote in Munich and Vienna.

On Monday, Ponta ordered Romanian ambassadors and officials working at other facilities where ballots can be cast overseas to meet in Bucharest to make sure the problem doesn't occur again during the runoff. Ponta, 42, has said that if he wins the runoff there will be stability and an end to bitter feuding between Romania's prime minister and president. Iohannis, 55, the center-right mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu, has promised an independent justice system to guarantee the rule of law.

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Romania ex-prison chief charged over deaths

The Romanian government has formally charged a former commander of a communist-era prison with crimes against humanity for the torture and deaths of 12 inmates. Alexandru Visinescu denied the accusations and told a court on Wednesday that he was only following orders and that the fatalities were the result of natural causes. Visinescu, 89, ran the Ramnicu Sarat prison from 1956 to 1963.

His comment was contained in a statement read to the court. Visinescu, who has not entered a plea yet and who plans to testify later, appeared agitated when the widow of General Ion Eremia, a former inmate, told the court on Wednesday how her late husband lost 50kg and was denied medicine in prison. About 500,000 Romanians were held as political prisoners in the 1950s while their Communist government sought to crush all dissent. Historians say one-fifth of prison inmates died then due to insufficient food and medicine, beatings and lack of heat in their cells. Communism ended in Romania 25 years ago, but the country is still in the process of prosecuting crimes committing during regimes from the early 1950s to 1964, the year a general amnesty was declared.

Visinescu is the first of 35 former communist prison commanders who could be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Ion Ficior, who ran the Periprava labor camp from 1958 to 1963, will be tried for allegedly causing the deaths of 103 political prisoners. Visinescu's case will continue on Novovember 19. Romania's communist rule ended 25 years ago following the overthrow and execution of the country's long-time leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

 


      
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