Communist-era prison chief Visinescu on trial in Romania

Former commander of Ramnicu Sarat penitentiary, 89-year-old Alexandru Visinescu pictured in Bucharest, Romania on 19 September 2014 Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption "Romania's Nuremberg" is how some have described Mr Visinescu's trial

A former Communist-era prison commander has appeared in a Romanian court accused of crimes against humanity, in the country's first trial of its kind.

Alexandru Visinescu, 88, ran the notorious Ramnicu Sarat prison from 1956 to 1963, where inmates were allegedly tortured and starved.

At least 12 people are said to have died as a result of the abuse.

Mr Visinescu is the first of 35 men whom the Romanian state plans to try for similar offences.

He has denied the charges, saying he has been made a scapegoat.

From his apartment in the capital Bucharest, he told AFP news agency: "I wasn't responsible for the rules in the prison. I followed my superiors' orders."

"If I really made mistakes, why did they keep me there for eight years?" he added.

The trial has now been adjourned and will resume next month.

'Prison of silence'

Image copyright REUTERS
Image caption The prison's last survivor says the trial is important, but that he cannot bear to watch it
Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Prosecutors say prisoners were tortured and kept on starvation diets

Prosecutors say Mr Visinescu oversaw an "extermination regime" at the prison camp in the east of the country.

Nicknamed "the prison of silence" because detainees were held in solitary confinement, the facility housed intellectuals, dissidents, priests and others deemed enemies of the Communist Party.

According to the BBC's Nick Thorpe, Romania's state-run Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes has been gathering evidence against those responsible since 2006 - exhuming graves and looking for surviving victims from a number of prisons.

Other former prison commanders, aged between 81 and 99, are also set to go on trial, he says.

About 500,000 Romanians became political prisoners in the 1950s as the country's Communist government sought to crush dissent.

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