Trial and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu
The trial of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu was a short trial held on 25 December 1989 by an Exceptional Military Tribunal, a drumhead court-martial created at the request of a newly formed group called the National Salvation Front, resulting in the death sentence and execution of former Romanian President and Romanian Communist Party General Secretary, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and his wife, Elena Ceaușescu.
|Nicolae Ceaușescu (left), President of the Socialist Republic of Romania from 1974 (and leader of the country since 1965), and his wife Elena Ceaușescu (right), were executed following a show trial on 25 December 1989.|
Marked by irregularities that are typical of kangaroo courts and show trials, the main charge was genocide—namely, murdering "over 60,000 people" during the revolution in Timișoara. Other sources put the death toll between 689 and 1,200. Nevertheless, the charges did not affect the trial, as the verdict had been already decided before the Tribunal had been created; General Victor Stănculescu had brought with him a specially selected team of paratroopers from a crack regiment, handpicked earlier in the morning to act as a firing squad. Before the legal proceedings began, Stănculescu had already selected the spot where the execution would take place—along one side of the wall in the barracks' square.
Nicolae Ceaușescu refused to recognize the Tribunal, arguing its lack of constitutional basis and claiming that the revolutionary authorities were part of a Soviet plot.
On 22 December, during the Romanian Revolution, Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu left the Central Committee building in Bucharest by helicopter toward Snagov, from which they left soon after towards Pitești. The helicopter pilot claimed to be in danger of anti-aircraft fire, so he landed on the Bucharest–Târgoviște road, near Găești. They stopped a car driven by a certain Dr. Nicolae Decă, who took them to Văcărești, after which he informed the local authorities that the Ceaușescus were going toward Târgoviște. The Ceaușescus took another car and told its driver, Nicolae Petrișor, to drive them to Târgoviște. During the trip, the Ceaușescus heard news of the revolution on the car radio (by then the revolutionaries had taken control of the state media), causing Ceaușescu to angrily denounce the revolution as a coup d'état. Petrișor took the couple to an agricultural center near Târgoviște, where the Ceaușescus were locked in an office and were later arrested by soldiers from a local army garrison.
Creation of the tribunalEdit
As the new authorities heard the news of their apprehension from General Andrei Kemenici, the commander of the army unit, they began to discuss what to do with the Ceaușescus. Victor Stănculescu, who was Ceaușescu's last defence minister before going over to the revolution, wanted a quick execution, as did Gelu Voican Voiculescu. Ion Iliescu, Romania's provisional president, supported holding a trial first.
During the evening of 24 December, Stănculescu sent the secret code "recourse to the method" to Kemenici, referring to the execution of the Ceaușescus. A ten-member tribunal was formed to try the case. The members of the panel were all military judges.
- Genocide – over 60,000 victims
- Subversion of state power by organizing armed actions against the people and state power.
- Offense of destruction of public property by destroying and damaging buildings, explosions in cities, etc.
- Undermining the national economy.
- Trying to flee the country using funds of over $1 billion deposited in foreign banks.
Counsel for the defenseEdit
The morning of the trial, prominent lawyer Nicu Teodorescu was having Christmas breakfast with his family when he was telephoned by an aide to Iliescu, and asked by the National Salvation Front to be the Ceaușescus' defense counsel. He replied that it "would be an interesting challenge". Teodorescu met the couple for the first time in the Târgoviște "court room", when he was given ten minutes to consult with his clients. With so little time to prepare any defense, he tried to explain to them that their best hope of avoiding the death sentence was to plead insanity. However, the Ceaușescus brushed away the idea. According to Teodorescu, "When [he] suggested it, Elena in particular said it was an outrageous set-up. They felt deeply insulted. ... They rejected [his] help after that."
The trial of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu was very brief, lasting approximately one hour. Ceaușescu defended himself by arguing that the Tribunal was against the 1965 Constitution of Romania and that only the Great National Assembly had the power to depose him. He argued that it was a coup d'état organized by the Soviets.
Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were convicted on all charges and condemned to death in a show trial. At one point, their forcibly-assigned lawyers abandoned their clients' defense and joined with the prosecutor, accusing them of capital crimes instead of defending them. No offer of proof was made for the Ceaușescus' alleged crimes. They were tried based on references, solely by offense-name or hearsay, to criminal acts they had committed in the opinion of prosecutors, or as alleged in press reports. Various irregularities presented themselves, or became apparent post-trial:
- There was directly a trial, without bothering to criminally investigate the suspects.
- The suspects were not examined psychiatrically, which was mandatory by law.
- The suspects could not choose their lawyers.
- An accusation of genocide was never proved. Four top Ceaușescu aides later admitted complicity in genocide in 1990.
- The court did not bother to find and prove the truth.
- The Ceaușescus were accused of having US$1 billion in foreign bank accounts. No such accounts have ever been found.
- Nicolae Ceaușescu openly disavowed the court. One of the Ceaușescus' lawyers suggested before the execution that since the pair did not recognize the tribunal, there was no avenue for appealing the verdict.
- The judges' verdict allowed for appealing to a higher court. However, the Ceaușescus were executed around five minutes after the verdict, rendering that provision moot.
- The person who signed the decree for organizing the court, coup leader Ion Iliescu, lacked legal power to do so. The order actually was handwritten in a lavatory in the Romanian Department of Defense.
- Romanian law prohibited carrying out the death sentence less than ten days after a verdict to allow time by the defendant's lawyers to file an appeal. After the Ceaușescus' execution, the death penalty was abolished in Romania.
- The coup leaders said the execution of the Ceaușescus was necessary to stop terrorists from attacking the new political order. However, no terrorists or terrorist cells were found to have been active in Romania. A newer insight of prosecution of "crimes against humanity" claims that the new regime orchestrated "a psychosis of terrorism" through diversionary actions.
- Initially Iliescu did not wish to carry out the executions immediately, and he instead favored a formal trial to be carried out several weeks later. General Victor Stănculescu insisted on the couple's hasty execution as an imperative for the Romanian Army supporting the newly created National Salvation Front. After a few hours of debating this option, Iliescu agreed with Stănculescu and signed the decree for organizing the court.
Before the execution, Nicolae Ceaușescu declared, "We could have been shot without having this masquerade!"
Just after the trial, the Ceaușescus were executed at 4:00 p.m. local time at a military base outside Bucharest on 25 December 1989. The execution was carried out by a firing squad consisting of paratroop regiment soldiers: Captain Ionel Boeru, Sergeant-Major Georghin Octavian and Dorin-Marian Cirlan, while reportedly hundreds of others also volunteered. The Ceaușescus' hands were tied by four soldiers before the execution. Popular history author Simon Sebag Montefiore has claimed that, before the sentences were carried out, Elena Ceaușescu screamed, "You sons of bitches!" while being led outside and lined up against the wall; at the same time Nicolae Ceaușescu sang "The Internationale".
The firing squad began shooting as soon as the two were in position against a wall. In 2014, retired Captain Ionel Boeru told a reporter for The Guardian newspaper that he believes that the shots he fired from his rifle were solely responsible for the deaths of both of the Ceaușescus, because, of the three soldiers in the firing squad, he was the only one who remembered to switch his Kalashnikov rifle to fire fully automatic, and at least one member of the group hesitated to shoot for several seconds. In 1990, a member of the National Salvation Front reported that 120 bullets were found in the couple's bodies.
The shooting happened too soon for the film crew covering the events to record it in full; only the last round of shots was filmed. Others believe the shooting recorded in the trial footage was not from the actual execution but was staged afterwards, with soldiers firing a few more rounds into the corpses a second time, just for the camera. This was probably done to give the footage a more dramatic "climax" since the moment of the actual execution was missed by the film crew.
As the dust settled the cameraman, still filming, was seen walking towards the couple's bodies. Elena had fallen to her right while Nicolae had collapsed where he was. A soldier and a medical doctor then began to approach the bodies to confirm that the Ceaușescus were dead. The cameraman requested that Elena's blood soaked scarf which had fallen across her head be lifted so her face could be clearly filmed. Similarly, while the doctor was confirming Nicolae Ceaușescu's death he was asked to lift up the head for the camera as well.
After the execution, the bodies were covered with canvas. The Ceaușescus' corpses were flown to Bucharest and buried five days later in Ghencea Cemetery on 30 December 1989.
The bodies were exhumed for identification and reburied in 2010. Groups of the old Ceaușescus supporters visit the graves to place flowers on the grave, a large numbers of pensioners gather here on 26 January, Ceaușescus's birthday.
Release of the imagesEdit
The hasty trial and the images of the dead Ceaușescus were videotaped and the footage promptly released in numerous western countries two days after the execution. Later that day, it was also shown on Romanian television.
Valentin Ceaușescu, elder son of the Ceaușescus, argued in 2009 that the revolutionary forces should have killed his parents when they had arrested them on 22 December since they did not need any trial. After making vague comments about the incident, Ion Iliescu stated that it was "quite shameful, but necessary". In a similar vein, Stănculescu told the BBC in 2009 that the trial was "not just, but it was necessary" because the alternative would have been seeing Nicolae lynched on the streets of Bucharest.
Several countries criticized the new rulers of Romania after the execution due to lack of public trial. The United States was the most prominent critic of the trial, stating: "We regret the trial did not take place in an open and public fashion."
In December 2018, Iliescu, former Deputy Prime Minister Gelu Voican Voiculescu, former Romanian Air Force chief Iosif Rus, and former National Salvation Front council member Emil Dumitrescu were indicted by Romanian military prosecutors for crimes against humanity for the deaths that occurred during the Romanian Revolution, most of which took place after Ceaușescu was overthrown. The indictment also made reference to the conviction and execution of the Ceaușescus "after a mockery of a trial". The investigation that led to the indictments had previously been closed in 2009, but was re-opened in 2016 as the result of a trial at the European Court of Human Rights.
Abolition of death penaltyEdit
The Ceaușescus were the last people to be executed in Romania before the abolition of capital punishment on 7 January 1990.
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