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Oct 22, 11:39 AM EDT

Court freezes assets of Romanian ex-prison chief charged with torture, deaths of 12


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BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) -- A court on Wednesday froze the assets of a former Romanian prison commander charged with torturing and causing the deaths of 12 political prisoners in the 1950s and 1960s and said the government may also be liable to pay damages to alleged victims.

It said the freeze of 89-year-old Alexandru Visinescu's assets included his apartment, one-third of his pension and shares he holds to pay damages that may be awarded to the alleged victims' families.

It was the first time Romania attempted to put a communist-era prison guard on trial, although the suspect failed to show up, saying he was sick. The court said it did not believe the explanation and said he would be taken by police escort to court for the next hearing on Nov. 5.

Visinescu ran the prison in Ramnicu Sarat, northeast of Bucharest, from 1956 to 1963. He insists he is not guilty because all he did was follow orders from his superiors, who are all dead now.

In a related development, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta on Wednesday asked his justice minister to look into the case of former dissident Gheorghe Ursu who was killed in prison on the orders of the former Securitate secret police in 1985 after repeated beatings from interrogators and inmates.

His son, Andrei Ursu, started a hunger strike Tuesday to call for the prosecution of a former Securitate colonel who he claims has evaded justice. Ursu says he will protest every day outside the ministry. Two police colonels were sentenced for being responsible for Ursu's death in 2003 but other people are believed to have been involved.

Ponta said he was not aiming to influence the justice system "but I personally want light to be shed on this case."

About 500,000 Romanians were condemned as political prisoners in the 1950s as the nation's Communist government sought to crush all dissent.

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