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Romania puts ex-communist prison chief on trial for torture, deaths of 12 political prisoners

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BUCHAREST, Romania — A former Romanian prison commander appeared in court Wednesday to face charges of torture and causing the deaths of 12 political prisoners in the nation's first trial of the head of a communist lockup.

Alexandru Visinescu, who ran the Ramnicu Sarat prison from 1956 to 1963 and is charged with crimes against humanity, was in court but did not take the stand, listening attentively to the proceedings.

Visinescu, who turns 89 this week, told The Associated Press earlier the court would have to prove that his actions led to the prisoners' deaths. He denied wrongdoing.

About 500,000 Romanians were condemned as political prisoners in the 1950s as the nation's Communist government sought to crush all dissent.

The widow of one former political prisoner asked the court for 100,000 euros ($132,000) in moral and financial damages for her husband, Gen. Ion Eremia, who was imprisoned for writing a book that criticized communist leaders. He died in 2004.

PHOTO: Media surrounds retired Lt. Col. Alexandru Visinescu, who ran the Ramnicu Sarat communist prison from 1956 to 1963 as he leaves a court in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, after attending the first hearing of a trial in which he is charged with crimes against humanity. Visinescu, who turns 89 this week, told The Associated Press earlier that the court would have to prove his actions led to prisoners’ deaths and denied wrongdoing. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Media surrounds retired Lt. Col. Alexandru Visinescu, who ran the Ramnicu Sarat communist prison from 1956 to 1963 as he leaves a court in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, after attending the first hearing of a trial in which he is charged with crimes against humanity. Visinescu, who turns 89 this week, told The Associated Press earlier that the court would have to prove his actions led to prisoners’ deaths and denied wrongdoing. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Valentin Cristea, the last survivor of the prison where Romania's political elite were incarcerated in isolation cells, told the AP the trial was late but important. Still, it was an event he could not bear to watch.

"It stirs my soul with bad memories. He won't recognize anything, won't remember anything," Cristea said by telephone.

Cosmin Budeanca, a director of the Romanian government institute investigating crimes under communism, called Visinescu's trial a victory for "moral justice."

"Victims have waited 25 years to see this person sent to face justice," he said.

The investigative commission is sending the files of 35 former prison commanders to prosecutors.

Ion Ficior, who ran the Periprava labor camp from 1958-1963, is also due to stand trial, charged with causing the deaths of 103 political prisoners.

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