Alexandru Visinescu was charged with genocide on September 3, 2013 in Romania. Visinescu ran the Ramnicu Sarat prison in eastern Romania from 1955 to 1963. The Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism and the Memory of the Romanian exile (IICCMER) requested this trial as part of a larger effort to cope with the lingering ghosts of the country’s communist era. While the trial has received very little attention in the English language press, it still presents an interesting case for those interested in matters of international justice and human rights. The way in which we classify heinous crimes directly affects our moral, political and judicial responses. Did Visinescu commit genocide and did genocide occur in Romania?
The prosecutors’ statement reads that “[a]s commander of the Ramnicu Sarat jail, Alexandru Visinescu submitted prisoners to treatments leading to their physical destruction.” Those targeted were not just confirmed political dissidents, but anyone perceived to be against the Communist rule. Those 500,000 dissidents imprisoned included diplomats, doctors, teachers, priests and even peasants. An estimated 100,000 of those imprisoned died due to the “harsh conditions.”
Former lieutenant-colonel Visinescu, now 88 years old, faces lifetime imprisonment if sentenced. This is the first genocidal inquiry since Nicolae Ceausescu, Communist leader from 1965 to 1989, was executed along with his wife in December of 1989. Visinescu, who did not make any statements after the trial, could be the first prison commander convicted from the Communist rule.
Romania was a single party socialist state from 1947 to 1989. In addition to the imprisonments, the Communist rule was characterized by political repression and severe restriction on human rights. The IICCMER called the prison at Ramnicu Surat one of “extermination,” in which Visinescu was directly responsible for the prisoners and the deaths that occurred. The prosecution’s evidence suggests that he was directly responsible for at least five of the deaths of political prisoners. Using a Nuremberg defense, Visinescu maintains that he was merely following orders.
Though the Romanian courts are using the term genocide, it has not been widely considered that on the international scale. The international definition of genocide, codified in 1948 in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, reads as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Using this definition, it is difficult to make the case that Visinescu is, in fact, a genocidaire because the political prisoners tortured were not targeted as part of a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Under the convention, political groups are not protected in that same way. The Romanian penal codes reads closely in defining genocide as “subjecting members of a national, ethnic, religious or racial group to conditions that are meant to physically destroy them.” While this narrow read of genocide could be problematic, it is still the widely accepted definition.
While the abuse, torture and death should not be minimized, they still do not fall under the category of genocide. Following the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity are “any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack direct against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: murder; extermination; enslavement; […]; imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; […] persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender […] or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, […] or other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” The case for Visinescu’s actions, as a part of the greater policy of the Communist state, as a crime against humanity is an arguably strong one.
If the Romanian courts are trying and convicting Visinescu without help from the international community, is their usage of the term “genocide” still problematic? In fact, the Rome Statue allows each state to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes. Given the international community’s reticence in using the term genocide (see: the war in Darfur), perhaps this recognition of grave human rights abuses is positive. Yet could Romania’s usage of “genocide” negate the strength of the term in understanding and in law?
Further, is a proposed sentence of life imprisonment for an elderly war criminal appropriate? This sentencing was used for many former Nazi officers convicted of war crimes. For example, Nazi soldier Josef Scheungraber was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison in 2009 at age 90. Could there be a more just sentencing that respects human rights as well as effectively punishes extreme violators of international and state law?
Lifetime imprisonment is certainly a moral improvement compared to the execution of Ceausescu and his wife. While the grave human rights violations and atrocities committed in Romania should not be overlooked, the classification of those crimes as genocide and the sentencing to those responsible merit further discussion.