By Radu Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania launched a criminal inquiry on Tuesday against a communist jail commander from the 1960s who is accused of crimes against humanity, as the country confronts its Stalinist past.
Historians say about half a million Romanians including priests, teachers and doctors were jailed as political prisoners after World War Two, and that about a fifth died in prisons such as Ramnicu Sarat.
Alexandru Visinescu, 88, was chief of Ramnicu Sarat in 1956-1963. Prosecutors accuse him of subjecting prisoners to beatings and starvation, as well as refusing them health treatment and heating.
The retired Lieutenant-Colonel has said he was "only following orders and doing his job".
Visinescu is charged with genocide - which is listed under crimes against humanity in the Romanian penal code and includes "subjecting members of a national, ethnic, religious or racial group to conditions that are meant to physically destroy them".
It is the first such genocide inquiry since the execution on similar charges of former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena in 1989.
Romania overthrew communist rule in a bloody revolution but has yet to convict a single communist-era prison commander as the European Union's second poorest state has been reluctant to face its past.
"We began an inquiry under charges of crimes of genocide. From his position, Visinescu, Alexandru, subjected the collectivity represented by political prisoners to conditions and treatment likely to trigger their physical destruction," Romania's prosecuting office said in a statement.
Visinescu attended prosecuting hearings for about one hour on Tuesday. He declined to make any statements to the media and left the building in a taxi.
Earlier this year, he told a local television station he was "only following orders and doing his job" and that he had no regrets from his time as prison commander and blamed the country's leadership of those years.
Romania still bears the scars of Ceausescu's repressive rule and his predecessor Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.
Many communist-era officials still hold prominent positions, continuing to wield influence on political policy and in the business world, even though current President Traian Basescu condemned crimes committed during that era in a 2006 speech.
The Institute for the Investigation of the Communist Crimes and the Romanian Exile Memory unearthed Visinescu's case based on former convicts' testimonies and former secret police archives. It said Visinescu was among a group of 35 prison officials aged 81-99 who committed crimes.
The institute said during Visinescu's time in charge of Ramnicu Sarat, there were 5 deaths which could be documented, including that of opposition party leader Ion Mihalache.
Romania opened Ceausescu's execution site to the public on Tuesday. The former military army barracks is in the city of Targoviste, where he was shot dead by a firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989.
(Editing by Pravin Char)