By Radu-Sorin Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A Romanian court sentenced a Stalinist-era political prison commander to 20 years in jail for murder on Friday, the first such ruling against a prison head since the collapse of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.
Dozens of political inmates died in the jail on the outskirts of the small town of Ramnicu Sarat, 150 km (94 miles) east of Bucharest, which between 1956 and 1963 was commanded by Alexandru Visinescu.
Prosecutors gave the court evidence of Visinescu's direct involvement in 12 deaths at his prison and accused him of subjecting inmates to beatings and starvation, and denying them medical treatment and heating.
According to the Institute for Investigation of Communist Crimes (IICCMER) up to 2 million people are estimated to have been victims of communist repression in Romania between 1945 and 1989, including killed, imprisoned, deported or relocated.
Visinescu, who turns 90 in September, has repeatedly said he only followed orders and blamed the country's Stalinist leadership of the then dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.
Visinescu, who can appeal the ruling, did not attend the trial on Friday. He has been living in central Bucharest, very near IICCMER's offices, local media found, and has been receiving a special military pension.
Investigations are under way into several other former prison commanders, and IICCMER has said it has a list of 35 prison officials aged 81 to 99 who it says committed crimes.
Historians say about half a million Romanians including politicians, priests, doctors, officers, land owners and merchants were sentenced and jailed in the 1950s and early 1960s and a fifth of them perished in prisons such as Ramnicu Sarat.
Many communist-era officials still have public roles and continue to wield political and business influence in Romania.
(Editing by Hugh Lawson)