Guards slammed doors on prisoners' fingers, beat them on the soles of their feet and burned them with cigarettes. They served rotten meat and forced inmates to eat excrement as punishment. In extremes of heat and cold, they made their victims haul crushing loads until they collapsed.
After decades of denial, chilling details are emerging about the torment guards inflicted upon political prisoners in Romanian communist-era gulags, as part of a first small step toward holding them to account. The names of 35 guards — now in their 80s or 90s — are to be handed to authorities starting next week for possible prosecution by a government institution tasked with investigating communist-era crimes, The Associated Press has learned.
The perpetrators of communist-era crimes have long been shielded by Romania's establishment, whose ranks are filled with members of the former Securitate secret police. But the movement to expose Romanian gulag guards has a powerful champion in the Liberal Party, which is now part of the governing coalition. Members of the party were targeted by the Communists in their crackdown on all perceived dissent after it came to power in 1946.
Of Romania's 617,000 political prisoners, 120,000 died in the gulags. The inmates included politicians, priests, peasants, writers, diplomats and children as young as 11. Most survivors died before seeing any chance of justice.
Those still alive — about 2,800 in all — now see a glimmer of hope as the Institute for Investigating the Crimes of Communism and the Memory of the Romanian Exile begins probing allegations against the 35 guards on the list, as well as other communist-era crimes.
The institute was founded by Liberal Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu in 2006. It's only since the party returned to government as a junior coalition partner last year that the institute has begun probing crimes committed in the 1950s and '60s — the darkest period of Romanian communism — aided by a Liberal-led interior ministry that has provided names and addresses. Like other former Warsaw Pact countries, Romania got rid of its top level communists during the 1989 revolution, but less than a handful were punished after former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed.
The institute's executive director says that has to change.
"Those who produced so much suffering and terror have to pay and even if they are 80 and 90," said Andrei Muraru. "They are not absolved of responsibility."
In the gulags, inmates frequently starved to death; many also died from lack of medical care. Punishments included eating excrement, long stretches of solitary confinement and carrying heavy weights to the point of collapse.
"It would be good for the ones who are alive to go on trial, so history will mark them down as criminals," said Caius Mutiu, 79, a former detainee who testified to the institute.
Mutiu spent eight years in five prisons for taking part in a protest supporting the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. He said that a guard once threatened to shoot him after he collapsed from hard labor. He spent two weeks in isolation, sleeping on a damp, concrete floor. The diet was cabbage, potatoes and barley soup.
"I counted 14 grains of barley, it was basically hot water," he recalls. He saw people die of starvation. "Their bodies swelled up before they died."
Former detainee Emilian Mihailescu, an architect, said a Romanian diplomat in his cell died when a boil on his neck became infected. "Medicine didn't really exist," he said.
One of the Romanian prison guards who will be publicly named this month is Ion Ficior, dubbed by inmates "a human beast."
"Ficior beat us every day with a wooden stick," said former prisoner Ianos Mokar, adding that the guard terrorized inmates by "jumping over us on his white mare."
In an interview with the AP, an unrepentant Ficior denied he had beaten anyone. The 85-year-old said he tried to ensure that inmates got full rations by ordering kitchen workers to get the most out of potatoes by peeling as thinly as possible.
He claims all the political prisoners under his command at the Periprava labor camp were militiamen known as Legionnaires who supported the Nazis during World War II. Historians say most prisoners were simply people who had fallen afoul of the Communist regime.
They "deserved to stay in prison to feel what their crimes were like," Ficior said. "Crimes against innocent people shot in the streets — that's what the Legionnaires did with the Jews."
He said the responsibility for the political prison system lay with Romania's Communist leaders. "The great blame lies with those who gave the orders," he said. "They are to blame."
Marius Oprea, the first head of the institute, says Romania has been reluctant to deal with its past because so many members of the old guard have remained in power since 1989.
"Do you think Romania's leaders want to punish their parents?" he told AP. "The Communist Party may no longer exist, but we still have Communists. The Securitate may be dead, but we still have former Securitate agents."