Europe

Meeting Florian Cormos, Romanian Communist jailer

Florian Cormos
Image caption Romania's dark history has caught up with Florian Cormos, once a loyal Communist policeman

Decades-old crimes from Romania's communist past are still haunting the country as surviving victims demand justice. The BBC's Nick Thorpe interviewed a former police officer blamed for prisoners' deaths, who is now being investigated by prosecutors.

Florian Cormos sits up painfully from his bed to talk to me. A month before his 87th birthday, he is not in good health. Four or five different medicines are assembled on a tray on the table, beside some wilting snowdrops. His only daughter, Evgenia, cares for him in their small flat in a quiet provincial town - Oradea in northern Romania.

Today, however, is different. Mr Cormos stands accused of crimes against humanity.

The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes (IICCMER), a government agency, has handed his file to the chief prosecutor, with the recommendation that he face charges for his role as commander of a prison camp for mainly political detainees.

More specifically, he is accused of responsibility for the deaths of 115 people at the Columbia camp, in Cernavoda, between December 1952 and March 1953.

Mr Cormos knows of only 12 deaths during his time in charge. He laughs bitterly when I challenge him to explain how more than 100 people could have died on his watch.

His voice, and his denials, get stronger as the interview proceeds.

Image caption Thousands of communist-era victims are commemorated by the canal

"Where do you think I was, Auschwitz?" - and he throws a wad of papers across the table, in disgust.

Class enemies

In 1949, Romania's new Communist leaders took the decision, at the instigation of the Soviet Union, whose troops occupied the country, to build a 70km- (43 mile-) canal from the Danube at Cernavoda to the Black Sea, cutting more than 200km off the shipping route for goods on the Danube.

Up to 100,000 prisoners, around 80% of them Romania's newly dispossessed middle class, arrested for either opposing Communism or failing to support it, were sent to eight camps along the planned route. Equipped with only shovels and wheelbarrows, they started digging.

By 1952, by Mr Cormos's own admission, they were dying - from overwork, malnutrition, disease and lack of medicine.

The accusations against him concern in particular the punishment cell in the middle of the Columbia camp.

"He sent detainees for 20 to 30 days of isolation in this cell. There they received just 100g (3.5oz) of bread and a mug of tea per day. Most were in leg irons," says Andrei Muraru, head of the IICCMER.

He lists names, and the conditions the men were in when they came out of the cell. Eight were in a coma. One man's feet fell off when his shoes were removed. Several men's legs had gone black with gangrene.

Image caption This photo shows Mr Cormos in the days when he was camp commander

One of the guards allegedly poured water into the cell, turning the floor into solid ice.

The bodies of the dead were piled on a horse-drawn cart and taken to the town cemetery, on the hill overlooking the camp, where they were dumped in pits.

Mr Cormos does not deny the existence of such a punishment cell.

"They had them in all the camps," he says. But he insists that as a 25-year-old officer drafted there from police school, he was placed in an impossible position by his superiors.

"There were 2,500 to 3,000 prisoners in Columbia. They were very weak and sick after three years digging the canal."

He also claims that he disobeyed an order from the then Romanian Interior Minister, Pavel Stefan, to "cure the sick with work".

That sentence meant - Mr Cormos says - "to let them die as quickly as possible".

Other Communist leaders of that era spoke proudly of the Danube-Black Sea Canal as "the grave of the Romanian bourgeoisie".

De-Stalinisation

"As commander of a camp, you could choose the degree of cruelty. There was no written instruction. Commanders… did what they wanted with the prisoners," says Mr Muraru.

Image caption Today the tranquil scene by the canal shows no trace of past brutality

A peculiarity of the investigation of Mr Cormos is that he has already served four years in prison, for his role at the camp.

In March 1953 Stalin died in the Soviet Union, and a thaw set in immediately throughout the Communist bloc of countries in eastern Europe.

Mr Cormos was put on trial and found guilty of "terror", and sent to another notorious Romanian prison, in Jilava.

"It was a show trial. But the colonel who appointed me to the job spoke out in my defence: 'If Cormos is arrested, all the prison officers along the whole canal should be arrested'."

In 1957 he was released and pardoned, and given a new job as deputy head of the prison in Cluj.

The IICCMER was set up in Romania in 2006.

Last year it announced that it had drawn up a list of 35 former prison camp commanders and deputy commanders who are still alive - aged 81-99.

There are some 53,000 people still alive who suffered either imprisonment, deportation or other serious punishments in the Communist era.

They receive on average 100 euros (£83; $137) a month from the Romanian state as compensation.

Two ex-commanders were charged last year with genocide: Alexander Visinescu, who headed the prison in Ramnicu Serat, and Ioan Ficior, ex-commander of the notorious Periprava prison camp in the Danube delta. Both pleaded not guilty.

In Mr Cormos' case, the prosecutor is expected to decide within a month whether to lay charges.

"I will not live long enough to appear in court," Mr Cormos told me as I left his room.

A suddenly very lonely old man, resting his head in his hands.

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