Bucharest, July 8th, 2014 – The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER) asked the General Prosecutor’s Office attached to the High Court of Cassation and Justice to initiate the criminal proceedings against the former deputy commander for security and regime of the Oneşti labor camp, also former deputy commander for security and regime / commander of the Gherla Penitentiary, Lieutenant-major (r) Constantin Istrate (88 years old), for committing crimes against humanity.
Following investigations carried out during the past months, IICCMER has identified a series of evidence indicating that, during the time Lieutenant-major (r) Constantin Istrate was deputy commander for security and regime at the Oneşti labor camp (Dec. 1953 – May 1954), at the Gherla Penitentiary respectively (August 1957 – November 1958, March 1959 – October 1962) and commander of the Gherla Penitentiary (December 1958 – March 1959), he committed crimes against humanity related to the people admitted administratively and the convicts, deeds which are stated and sanctioned by article 439, paragraph 1, letter j of the Criminal Code. Constantin Istrate applied an inhumane prison regime on the detainees, which was tougher than the provisions of the rules and regulations for the organization and functioning of the Directorate General of Penitentiaries.
Following undertaken investigations, IICCMER has identified a series of evidence indicating that, during the time Sub-lieutenant/ Lieutenant/ Lieutenant-major Istrate Constantin occupied managing positions at the Oneşti labor camp and at the Gherla Penitentiary, the political prisoners were subjected to an extremely tough imprisonment regime. This type of regime, enforced in the two penitentiaries, can be considered as one of extermination taking into account the inhumane conditions which the convicts were subjected to, which led to numerous deaths.
The evidence consists of documents from the archive of the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS) and testimonies of the former political prisoners.
During 1953-1954, 1957-1962 respectively, when Istrate Constantin occupied leading positions at the Oneşti labor colony and at the Gherla Penitentiary, the imprisonment regime from the penitentiaries and colonies in Romania resulted in the deterioration of health and the death of the political prisoners, a regime which was elaborated and enforced by the communist leaders of the time. This regime, which was intentionally imposed and supported by Istrate Constantin, can be characterized by lack of food, medicine and medical assistance, abuses and a high number of deaths.
Description of the Oneşti Labor Camp
There is little information about the Oneşti colony and the imprisonment regime there. The camp was founded on April 1st, 1953, based on a contract between the Direction for Labor Camps and Colonies and Sovrompetrol Ploiești. The prisoners from this colony were used in construction, sewerage works and other types of activities, depending on the demands of the beneficiary. During 1953 and 1968, “common law prisoners, saboteurs, counterrevolutionaries, convicts and those admitted by the General Direction of the Militia”1 were imprisoned here. The inmates who were incarcerated in this colony also worked on the construction of the combine group of enterprises from Oneşti-Borzeşti.2
According to the documents certifying the death of the prisoners, identified in the archive of the National Administration of Penitentiaries, during December 1953 and May 1954, when Sub-lieutenant Istrate Constantin was deputy commander for security and regime at the Oneşti labor camp, one prisoner died, right after his transfer to the Hospital in Bacău.
About the Gherla Penitentiary3
Gherla was one of the largest communist penitentiaries in Romania, which was characterized, on one hand, by the phenomenon of reeducation and, on the other hand, by the numerous executions and cases of inhuman treatment applied to the convicts. For the communist period, detention at Gherla officially includes two distinct phases: 1945-1964, “political prison”; 1964-1989, “common law prison”.
After August 23rd, 1944 until the beginning of 1945, the Gherla penitentiary was used as a storage house for the Soviet armies. From 1945, Gherla imprisoned those convicted for “crimes against the security of the state” and common law prisoners (men). As it was a very spacious penitentiary, prisoners with very large punishments were brought to Gherla.
The prison was considered as a first category unit by the communist regime. By 1949, the U-shaped building came to detain 3,000 convicts (8 to 12 persons in a cell destined for two). During 1945 and 1964, the prisoners from Gherla were mainly middle class, freelancers, intellectuals and students. The penitentiary reached a maximum number of prisoners in July 1959 (approximately 4,500).
There are many testimonies about the detention conditions from Gherla. A quote by Ioan T. Lungu is particularly relevant: “At Gherla, food was represented exclusively by porridge which substituted bread and sour broth which we ate in a bad air, not even blessed by the rays of the holy sun. During my two years of detention at Gherla, I did not receive even one piece of bread. […] In Gherla, the toilet was the room which we inhabited and we were taken to bathe and to the doctor with our hands behind our head and supervised through the eyehole. Only the prisoners working in the kitchen, garden or the workrooms of the penitentiary received an additional nutritional ratio. Even from 1951 it was prohibited for anyone to receive clothes and/or food from home.”4 Despite all this, torture and beatings were surely much harder to endure than the worse porridge ever.
After the end of reeducation at Gherla, in 1952, Goiciu Petrache (former director at Galați) was named commander and another period of terror began. Goiciu „proceeded to the rapid transformation of the reeducation through violence into one based on work and violence”. The end of the reeducation process in Gherla put some of the torturers in significant positions in the penitentiary.
The so-called “murder in the limelight” took place at Gherla, meaning executions based on criminal sentences.
During the time Istrate Constantin was deputy commander for security and regime at the Gherla Penitentiary, the unit was led by Goiciu Petrache (1952-1958), Mihai Dorobanțu (1959-1960) and Dumitru Alexandrescu (1960-1963), while in the period December 1958 – 1st of March 1959, the Penitentiary was led precisely by Istrate Constantin.
According to the official death certificates and documents identified in the archives of the National Administration of Penitentiaries, the archive of theGherla Penitentiary, in the archive of the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives and at Gherla City Hall, during August 1st, 1957 – October 31st, 1962, while Lieutenant/ Lieutenant-major Istrate Constantin was deputy commander for security and regime, commander respectively (December 1958 – March 1st, 1959), 216 prisoners died (9 of them in the three months he was commander). We do not exclude the possibility for other relevant documents to lead to the identification of more victims in the next period.
In order to file the criminal complaint, the IICCMER researchers studied several documents which state the main causes of death: pulmonary TBC, pneumonia, cardiac disease, ulcers, liver cirrhosis, enterocolitis, dystrophies, cancer, sclerosis, hemorrhages, meningitis etc. Thus, 35 of deaths were caused by TBC (18%), 32 by pulmonary disease (15%), 75 deaths were caused by heart disease (33%), 19 by liver problems (9%), 7 by digestive disease (3%), 6 by various kidney problems (3%)
These diagnoses were or could have been direct consequences of the imprisonment regime, as the deceased suffered from the so-called “diseases of misery” (tuberculosis) or from the various illnesses caused by insufficient alimentation, which could have been normally treated.
Aside from the poor diet and lack of medical assistance, an important contribution to the death of the political prisoners was brought by the punishments they received for the slightest deviations from the rules: isolation, beatings, lack of food for several days in a row.
The testimonies of the former political prisoners interviewed by the IICCMER experts clearly show that the detention regime enforced while Istrate Constantin occupied leading positions at the Gherla penitentiary was one meant to lead to the physical destruction of the political prisoners through direct and indirect measures such as:
- horrible and inhumane imprisonment conditions, bad treatment;
- lack of adequate food;
- extreme cold and cell crowding;
- lack of medication and medical assistance or the denial of proper medical assistance;
- enforcing harsh punishments for slight deviations from the rules;
- extremely difficult working conditions;
- punishments included isolation (solitary confinement), beatings etc.
The actions of Lieutenant-major Istrate Constantin can be considered crimes against humanity because, as deputy commander for security and regime at the Oneşti labor camp and at the Gherla Penitentiary, and commander of the Gherla Penitentiary respectively, he committed systematic actions which resulted into the persecution of the collectivity made out of the political prisoners detained at the two penitentiaries, by depriving them of fundamental human rights or by the severe limitation of these rights for political reasons, also by subjecting them to living conditions and treatments designed to lead to the physical annihilation of the political prisoners, through illegal measures.
Thus, as deputy commander for security and regime at the Oneşti labor colony and the Gherla Penitentiary, and commander of the Gherla Penitentiary, Constantin Istrate was responsible for the “prisoners’ life”, as it was stated in the GDP (General Direction of Penitentiaries) functioning regulations, which means that he organized or at least tolerated the imprisonment conditions.
The deaths of the political prisoners resulted from several factors which he instated, as he was the only one authorized to make decisions regarding the imprisonment conditions.
It is common knowledge that the rules and regulations regarding the imprisonment conditions of the time only represented the basis for the organization of the extermination regime in penitentiaries and labor colonies, while the actual measures taken for the elimination of the political prisoners were left in the care of the prison commanders and only amended through unofficial orders and recommendations from the party. The death of the political prisoners occurred after a slow, but effective process of physical and mental torture.
Starting from the evidence presented above, we can conclude that during December 1953 – May 1954, August 1957 – October 1962, Sub-lieutenant/ Lieutenant / Lieutenant -major Istrate Constantin is directly responsible for the deaths of at least 217 prisoners identified so far, as a result of the tough detention regime which included starvation, physical violence, mental pressure, lack of medical assistance, lousy conditions and overcrowding, harsh working conditions, exaggerated and discretionary disciplinary sanctions etc.
As deputy commander for security and regime at the Oneşti labor colony and the Gherla Penitentiary, and commander of the Gherla Penitentiary, he applied directly and intentionally a regime of extermination, with the silent approval from the authorities interested in the physical annihilation of the political opponents. Reasoning that Istrate Constantin was only an instrument of the repressive system in communist Romania does not exonerate him from criminal accountability.
The team who investigated the case was formed out of Cosmin Budeancă, Constantin Petre, Cristina Roman, Gina Radu, Florin Soare, Dan Țălnaru.
1 AANP (Archive of the National Administration of Penitentiaries), Secretary fund, file no. 5/1955, ff. 127-128, apud Andrei Muraru (ed.), Dicționarul penitenciarelor din România comunistă (1945-1967) [The Dictionary of Penitentiaries in Communist Romania], Polirom, Iași, 2008, p. 410; Interviews carried out by Alexandru Matei with Petru Baciu and Pintilie Iacob, in Cosmin Budeancă (ed.), Experiențe carcerale în România comunistă [Prison Experiences in Communist Romania], II, Polirom, 2008, pp. 22, 305; Interview with Christu Lapa carried out by Constantin Petre and Alexandru Matei, in Cosmin Budeancă (ed.), Experiențe carcerale în România comunistă [Prison Experiences in Communist Romania], VI, Polirom, 2013, pp. 196-198.
2 OSA 300-60-1, RFE Research Institute, Romanian Unit, Prisons and Camps, box 436, Item nr. 1570/1962, f. 39, apud Andrei Muraru, op. cit., p. 410.
3 The description of the Gherla Penitentiary is based on the Archive of the National Administration of Penitentiaries, Security and Regime fund, from the Archive of the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives, Criminal and Informative funds, and from the study dedicated to this penitentiary published in the volume Andrei Muraru (ed.), Dicționarul penitenciarelor din România comunistă (1945-1967)[The Dictionary of Penitentiaries in Communist Romania], Polirom, Iași, 2008, pp. 320-333.
4Ioan T. Lungu, Gherla, ușa iadului [Gherla, the door to hell], Excelsior, Timișoara, 1996, p. 14.