Romanian Seeks Justice Over Dissident Father’s Death

After years of struggle with obstructive bureaucracy, Andrei Ursu will see four former communist police officers and officials go on trial next week for the murder of his dissident father.
Dissident Gheorghe Ursu, as he appears on his former communist secret police informative file. Photo: The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile.

It has taken him 32 years to bring the people responsible for his father’s death to justice – but Romanian-born American Andrei Ursu, 58, says his quest is far from over.

The trial of two former officers of the Romanian secret police as well as the former minister of Interior and the former head of the Securitate – accused of planning and covering up the murder of civil engineer Gheorghe Ursu in 1985 – should begin on March 16 at the Supreme Court.

The indictment compiled by military prosecutors tells a gruesome tale of how Romania’s fearsome secret police used informants to spy on suspected dissidents, including artists and writers, and how it carefully planned to annihilate them under the pretext of having committed petty crimes.

Historian Ilarion Tiu, a lecturer at the Political Science Department of the Dimitrie Cantemir University in Bucharest, says the purpose of the trial is not only to achieve justice but it seems to aim exposing how the communist regime’s political police functioned.

It is, he says, bound to take a long time. “It is one of the most difficult cases,” he pointed out. “But crimes against humanity are difficult to prove  and trials take a very long time.”

Killed ‘for handling foreign currency’:

Prominent dissident Gheorghe Ursu was beaten to death in prison in 1985, a month-and-a-half after the secret police, the Securitate, arrested him for having illegally used foreign currency.

In fact, the secret police were investigating him for “propaganda against the communist order” after some of Ursu’s coworkers had informed the authorities that he kept a journal in which he wrote his opinions about the regime of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Ursu says his father had friends among journalists in Radio Free Europe and dissident writers, and together they planned to denounce Ceausescu at a Communist Party congress.

Ursu was also the author of a letter in 1979, two years after a deadly earthquake that shook Bucharest and killed 1,400 people, which accused Ceausescu of stopping all reinforcement works on many buildings with seismic risk and of concentrating all personnel on the construction site of his People’s House.

“They knew about that letter. I found that among the documents discovered recently,” Andrei Ursu told BIRN.

He says his father did not cooperate, did not disclose the names of his friends and the investigators beat him repeatedly until he died of internal bleeding. They then covered up the murder, blaming it on a cellmate.

Ursu’s death turned into an international scandal. His daughter lived in the United States and President Ronald Reagan, who had pressured the regime in Bucharest before to release a persecuted priest, withdrew Romania’s “most favored nation” status.

One of the four accused has died:

According to the indictment, four people were responsible for Ursu’s death, including retired Major Marin Pirvulescu and Colonel Vasile Hodis who conducted the interrogations and the systematic beatings. Both are indicted for crimes against humanity.

Two former ministers of Interior, the late George Homostean, who died aged 93 in December 2016, four months after the indictment was written, and Tudor Postelnicu, 86, are indicted for covering up the murder and for sending official documents with false information to Romania’s embassies in Washington and Paris, saying Ursu had been accused of a petty crime and was not a victim of the political police.

The trial follows three decades of struggle for Ursu’s family. Andrei Ursu says that during the 1990s, it was very difficult for him to obtain documents and a large part of his father’s file vanished together with his journal. He only obtained his father’s surveillance file, which the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives, CNSAS, said had been forged.

“I was very disappointed to realize that they had sat on it for years to simply forge it,” Andrei Ursu says.

He also says that one of the indicted, Colonel Hodis, only retired from the Romanian Intelligence Service, the SRI, 1999, and he is convinced he tampered with the file.

Series of failed investigations:

The Bucharest prosecutor’s office decided not to indict Pirvulescu with Ursu’s death for lack of evidence in 2013. For Andrei Ursu, it was a difficult moment. 

Earlier, three people were sentenced for Ursu’s death in 2003-2004: his cellmate, the head of the Criminal Investigations and the head of Bucharest Police detention centre. But Andrei knew there was more to the story.

The breakthrough came in 2014. For years, he had petitioned the SRI to get hold of all the documents the Securitate had kept of his father. For years, SRI officials refused to release them and told him there was nothing left. But in 2014, when he went on a 17-day hunger strike to raise more awareness on his cause, his father’s criminal file showed up, out of nowhere, together with a collection of other files at the CNSAS.

It was all in there and the military prosecutors could start the investigation in 2015 and submitted the indictment to the Supreme Court in August 2016.

Tiu says the case was bound to resurface. He says that, from his experience in documenting cases of political detainees, even when people want to cover up crimes, it is almost impossible to falsify history forever. He is not surprised it took so long for Ursu’s file to resurface, however.

“The practice is to send one criminal file to several institutions. Ursu’s file might have been at the Ministry of Justice and couldn’t be reached by researchers in CNSAS because they are only entitled to access former Securitate files.

“Criminal files usually stay in isolated places and are difficult to reach for researchers. The Communist police files, the so-called Militia files, for instance, are in a storage facility at the Ministry of Interior and sometimes, even when you find the file, you’re told you don’t have access to it for reasons of national security.”

Tiu also says that the CNSAS does not get all the files it wants at once from the SRI. It can take years for a file to reach the researcher because the Intelligence service sends on the files that its management sees fit.

Others need to face justice as well:

Ursu says that other former communist officials worked on plans to jail dissidents for common crimes, and they need to be brought to justice, too.

One, he says, is former Securitate head Iulian Vlad;Ursu has evidence that he designed the whole strategy of jailing dissidents on petty crime charges to cover up the political nature of their offence. The dissident’s son wants to file another complaint specifically in Vlad’s case.

He also says prosecutors need to look into how huge parts of the files and his father’s journal disappeared during the 1990s, and why his father’s criminal file only surfaced in 2015.

He says Ursu’s file is connected to many other files, on dissident writers and on Radio Free Europe journalists among others, who Ceausescu wanted annihilated in “various ways.”

Tiu says it is difficult to investigate cases of the victims of the former communist political police and only Andrei Ursu’s personal perseverance and the support of the media and the civil society made the forthcoming trial possible.

Other victims of the political police that the historian worked on were too old to keep on fighting, he recalled.

He also says that money is one reason why Romania’s government does not want justice done in cases involving former political prisoners. “The financial damages that the victims might seek could be tremendous and the state budget can’t sustain them,” he said.

“Any file meant to award former political detainees reparations and damages gets stopped in the Ministry of Finance.”