Page last updated at 00:05 GMT, Friday, 25 December 2009

Ceausescu execution 'avoided mob lynching'

Romanians on a bus in Timisoara  covered with images of the 1989 revolution
Romanians on a tram in Timisoara covered with images of the 1989 revolution

Twenty years ago Romania underwent a week-long revolution, leading to the overthrow of leader Nicolae Ceausescu. The BBC's Nick Thorpe speaks to one of the key figures during those times - General Victor Stanculescu.

In chequered shirt and dark brown jacket, Gen Victor Stanculescu looks frail but as straight-backed as one would expect from a retired soldier.

We meet in the prison hospital club at Jilava, just north of Bucharest, where only last year he began serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated manslaughter.

He was found guilty of ordering troops to open fire on the crowds in the western Romanian city of Timisoara on 17 and 18 December - a charge he has always denied.

Outside in the prison yard it is bitterly cold, minus 7C.

There are watch towers, rows of barbed wire, and stray dogs inside the prison compound.

General Victor Stanculescu

I did not give any orders to anybody. And I did not order any unit under my command in Timisoara to carry out any acts of repression
Gen Victor Stanculescu
Former Romanian Defence Minister

Some inmates are hard at work with shovels, trying to clear the snow and ice. If hell was cold, it would be like this. There is even a snowman, wearing a grey prison cap.

The prison hospital where Stanculescu is held is slightly friendlier - a modern-looking three-storey building painted yellow and white.

Critical moment

On his lapel, the general proudly sports a badge. I peer closer. It's in English: Romanian Snooker Association.

"I'm the president of it," the general says proudly.

As minister of defence on 25 December 1989, Stanculescu oversaw the trial and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the president and first lady of Romania, his own commander-in-chief.

Was the very brief trial and verdict just, necessary or both?

"It was not just, but it was necessary," says Stanculescu.

"If we had left it to the people of Bucharest, they would have lynched them in the street."

He describes two incidents to illustrate how critical the moment was.

On his way to the military barracks where the Ceausescus were being held after their capture, he took the precaution of ringing the anti-aircraft commander in advance.

They agreed that he would be wearing a white scarf as he arrived by helicopter.

A Romanian woman kneels by photographs of a relative killed in 1989
A Romanian woman kneels by photographs of a relative killed in 1989

The commander had been told to expect an attack by "terrorists" intent on freeing Ceausescu. Thanks to the white scarf, he ordered his men to hold their fire.

'Recognise the sacrifice'

After the trial and execution, as they were taking the bodies away in an armoured vehicle, they were shot at, and three soldiers died, according to Stanculescu.

"This proves that there were some army generals who still supported Ceausescu," he said.

Stanculescu joined the revolution, and served as minister of defence then minister of industry in the new government.

He was first put on trial in 1997, after his ally President Ion Iliescu lost power.

Stanculescu was convicted, but 10 years of hearings and appeals followed. He was only definitively convicted and sent to prison in November 2008.

"I did not give any orders to anybody. And I did not order any unit under my command in Timisoara to carry out any acts of repression," Stanculescu said.

So should those who really were responsible be found and charged?

"All the main actors are now dead, so there's no point in prosecuting them. It should be enough to recognise the sacrifice of those who fought in the revolution - and to make sure their families can live decently," he replies.

Peaceful means

Twenty years on, Romanians who lived through the revolution are still trying to make sense of it, and of the legacy of Ceausescu's rule.

A man lights a candle at the heroes' cemetery in Timisoara
Paying respects to the victims of 1989 at the heroes' cemetery in Timisoara

"I often ask myself, if Ceausescu were alive today, would he have a chance if he ran for the presidency?" says Stejarel Olaru, head of the Committee to Investigate Crimes of the Communist Era, which was established by President Basescu.

"And I believe he would. People believe Ceausescu did many good things... that he gave the people houses, jobs, and good salaries. His mistake, they think, was that he didn't put food in the shops."

It's a stupid line of thinking, he says, but quite a commonly-held one. The flats were small and cramped, the jobs were often unproductive. And people have too easily forgotten the all-pervading fear of the secret police.

"December 1989 was a conflict between the state and the people of Romania,"' says Claudiu Iordache, director of the Institute of the Romanian Revolution in Bucharest.

"And that fight is still going on today, but by more peaceful means. The state is still imposing its will on the people, who suffer as a result."

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