A court has set a 20-year sentence for a communist-era prison commander convicted of crimes against humanity in the deaths of 12 inmates, in the first such trial in Romania.

The Appeals Court sentenced the 89-year-old Alexandru Visinescu on Friday to 20 years for deaths which happened under his command. He was not in court to hear the ruling which is not final. He says he was merely following orders.

From 1956 to 1963, Visinescu ran Ramnicu Sarat, a prison in eastern Romania where intellectuals and political and military officials were tortured and sometimes killed.

About 500,000 Romanians were held as political prisoners in the 1950s and early '60s.

Visinescu is the first prison commander from that time to stand trial, which began in September.