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Romanian Communist-era prison guard charged with genocide

Retired Lt. Col. Alexandru Visinescu, 87, looks at journalists outside his home in Bucharest. Romanian prosecutors on Tuesday Sept. 3, 2013 charged the commander of a Communist-era prison with genocide, the first Romanian to face the charge since 1989. Visinescu appeared before prosecutors to be presented with the charges. Between 1956 and 1963, he ran the Ramnicu Sarat prison where the pre-Communist elite and intellectuals were incarcerated. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda. File)

Romanian prosecutors on Tuesday charged the commander of a Communist-era prison with genocide, the first Romanian to face the charge since 1989.

Alexandru Visinescu, 87, appeared before prosecutors to be presented with the charges. Between 1956 and 1963, he ran the Ramnicu Sarat prison where the pre-Communist elite and intellectuals were incarcerated.

Visinescu declined to comment as he was led to a taxi. He has said he was only following orders.

Prosecutors said in a statement that under his command prisoners were subjected to beatings, hunger, a lack of medical treatment and exposure to cold. Visinescu could face life in prison if convicted.

The last Romanian to be charged with genocide was former leader Nicolae Ceausescu who was tried and executed in 1989.

In July, the institute investigating communist crimes wrote to the general prosecutors calling for Visinescu to be prosecuted for six deaths. It says it will hand a total of 35 files about former commanders to prosecutors.

In August, Visinescu cursed a cameraman and lunged several times at journalists who were seeking reaction to the accusations against him. Since then, there has been public debate about the era with many people speaking in favor of moves to punish former prison commanders.

President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta have both said that former commanders should face justice for crimes they may have committed.

About 500,000 Romanians, priests, teachers, peasants, doctors and diplomats were condemned as political prisoners in the 1950s as the Communist government sought to crush all dissent. One-fifth of those who were imprisoned died due to the harsh conditions, historians say.