Law and Famous Trials

Nicolae Ceausescu

Was despotic Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu brought to justice?

In the 1989 “trial” of Nicolae Ceausescu (1918–1989) and his wife Elena (1919–1989), justice may not have been served, but many believed the tyrannical Communist leader of Romania had indeed met with just desserts. The December 25 trial of the Ceausescus lasted all of 60 minutes: 55 minutes of questioning, to which the president’s response was, “I do not recognize you … I do not recognize this court,” followed by five minutes of deliberation. The court and judge were made up of the leaders in the popular rebellion that had begun December 16 when a pro-democracy rally attended by some 350,000 people ended in the Romanian army’s and Ceausescu’s secret police attacking unarmed demonstrators, killing several hundred men, women, and children. In demonstrations that followed, the Romanian army, long resentful of the privileged status enjoyed by the president’s secret police, turned on Ceausescu’s government, handing over automatic weapons to insurgents, whom they now joined in a popular uprising.

On December 21 state television and radio came under the people’s control, as did the Communist Party’s central building and the royal palace, which were later found to be replete with luxuries and were also connected by a maze of tunnels. The Ceausescus and a few of their close associates tried to flee, but were captured on December 22—the same day that mass graves were found, revealing the secret police’s torture and destruction of several hundred men, women, and children. The rebels drove the Ceausescus around for three days, averting the still-loyal secret police. Realizing that time was not on their side, the captors assembled an “extraordinary military tribunal” in a small schoolroom at an army barracks. A defense lawyer was provided for Ceausescu; counsel urged the former president to plead guilty by reason of insanity. He refused. The charges against Ceausescu included genocide, the massacre of demonstrators, and subversion of the economy for his own benefit. One hour later, the guilty verdict was delivered. Asked if they wished to appeal the decision, the Ceausescus remained silent. They were promptly taken outside, where a squad opened fire on the former president and his wife. Videotape of the brutal killings (the squad had fired as many as 30 rounds) was shown on Romanian television. By December 30 the country was controlled by rebel forces.


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