A general's trial

BUCHAREST: As Chile’s former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, under house arrest outside of London, awaits a final decision on whether he is to be extradited to Spain to face charges of having committed crimes against humanity, Romania has tried and convicted one of its own military leaders for his role in the massacre of civilians in the city of Timisoara ten years ago. The confused reaction to this verdict should, perhaps, give pause to all those who think that putting the past on trial is a straightforward thing.

Generals Atanase Stanculescu and Mihai Chitac were found guilty of ordering the killings of dozens of innocent people in Timisoara in 1989. Both were sentenced each to long prison terms. The rulings were met with fierce criticism by some journalists and politicians but were enthusiastically welcomed by others. Undoubtedly, these verdicts will remain divisive in a society not yet able to come to terms with its past.

The story of General Stanculescu, sentenced to 15 years in prison, reads like a cheap novel, with treason thrown into the mix. The tall, good-looking officer was among Nicolae Ceausescu’s closest aides. As the uprising against the Ceausescu regime broke out in December 1989 in Timisoara, Stanculescu (together with General Chitac) was dispatched to the city and ordered to suppress all demonstrations by any available means. He carried out these orders ruthlessly, his troops shooting down over 100 unarmed street demonstrators.

Summoned back to Bucharest two days later, Stanculescu apparently had second thoughts about his loyalty to the dictator. He recognized that Ceausescu was doomed. Pretending to have a broken leg, he stalled in making his reappearance. Then, on the 22 December, as crowds stormed the Central Committee headquarters in Bucharest, Stanculescu arranged for a helicopter to rescue Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu from the building’s roof terrace. Minutes before the helicopter took off, Elena told the General, who was wearing a fake plaster cast around his leg: “Dearest Victor, look after my children!”