IN MEMORIAM Mihai Stăuceanu, the defector who took the Romanian State to court

Timp de patru decenii Mihai Stăuceanu și-a căutat dreptatea. Fără succes.

Timp estimat de citire: 11 minute

Mihai Stăuceanu’s story could easily be turned into a script for a movie. It has so many sides, it is difficult to get it all in a newspaper article.

Stăuceanu is, from a journalist’s stand point, the text-book case for a defector. His tribulations at the Romanian border, then in Yugoslavia, then in the refugee camp in Italy, and, finally, in Canada, his final destination, could make only the first part in a several episodes series. But the next episodes of Stăuceanu’s life read even better.

The can of worms in his Securitate file, now at CNSAS

When he asked for his Securitate file, from the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Files, or CNSAS, Stăuceanu was in for a big surprise, finding out the names, the many names of people he thought were his friends, both here, in Romania, and in Canada, where he fled, but who proved to be informants on the Securitate pay-roll.

Because he defected successfully, Stăuceanu, a simple electrician, became a person worth investing State funds to follow.

Stăuceanu found these were reasons enough to take the Romanian State to court, and thus create a precedent, with a ruling that could benefit all former defectors, at the end of the day. He has decided to go the European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR, if Romanian courts will not grant him satisfaction.

Mihai Stauceanu in 2018

Why was it a crime to not stand communism and opt out of the system?

To some, the realization that the communist regime was toxic, came early in life. And the desire to live in a free world followed.

Stăuceanu first jumped border when he was 18, accompanied by a friend and co-worker from the Reşiţa city. They made their attempt at crossing the border one foggy and rainy day, on May 4, 1975, in the area of the Vărădia village, Caraş-Severin County.

The gateway to Vărădia, where the two defectors were tried publicly; by Marina Constantinoiu

Out of fright and high emotions, they accidentally touched a wire that triggered a warning system which further frightened them; they ran like crazy, only to stop in a barbed-wire fence. Only in the morning they would discover that their clothes were torn, and their bodies bloodied from that encounter with the fence. They stripped and washed their clothes in the nearby Nera River.

They wandered for three days, till they reached the railway station in Belgrade. Unfortunately, they were discovered by the Yugoslav police in the train they boarded to Vienna. They were tried for illegal border-crossing, sent to a few days in prison at the Padinska Skela, and then returned to the Romanian authorities.

The road to the Padinska Skela prison; by Marina Constantinoiu

Border-jumpers were handed over at Stamora Moraviţa

The two of them were handed over to the Romanian border-guards with the military unit U.M. 02890 Oraviţa, on May 7, 1975, at the Stamora-Moraviţa border control point.

The Romanian border-guards tied their hands, at their backs, with wire, blind-folded them, and took them in a military all-terrain vehicle, to their headquarters in Oraviţa; on the road, they hit them over their heads and in their torso areas. This was the border-guards way to remind them their current status as “traitors”.,

I have no idea how long it actually took to get from Stamora Moraviţa to Oraviţa, but it seemed ages, and I started to regret the border-guards did not put a bullet in my head while attempting to cross to the other side”, Stăuceanu recalls now.

It may be that we left behind ample proof of our attempt at crossing the border – meaning parts of clothing, foot prints, and the alarm switch we triggered – that they were particularly mad at us. It may be that the prospect of not having caught us scared them, as it carried a lot of consequences for them,” Stăuceanu adds.

We spent 24-hours in the arrest room at U.M 02890 Oraviţa, while still having our hands tied at the back, our eyes blindfolded, and with no permission to use the toilet, sit or at least stay on our knees,” he recalls.

Mihai Stauceanu

Public trial for public humiliation, at the Cultural House in the Vărădia village

Major Crăciun Gheorghe conducted the official inquiry, and he told them he would ask the prosecutor to have their trial conducted in the village of Vărădia – the village closest to the area they attempted to cross the border – in order to set an example for the local population.

As Major Gheorghe told them, they had their public trial on May 23, 1975, in the Cultural House of the village of Vărădia, where the locals were rounded up and made to witness it. The boys were sentenced to a 22-month prison-term, and they were immediately taken to the penitentiary in the city of Caransebeş.

Stăuceanu’s brother, Nicolae Stăuceanu, who had already served time for his own attempt to illegally cross the border, back in 1972, appealed the ruling at the Reşiţa Tribunal. This appeal court decided to lower the sentence to 12 months in prison, taking into account that Mihai Stăuceanu was barely over 18. He was then taken to the prison in Gherla, to serve his time.

The Cultural House in Vărădia, as it looks today; by Marina Constantinoiu

In the prison at Gherla

The Gherla prison was for border jumpers and people sentenced to over 20-year terms. I believe at the time there were some 200 to 250 border jumpers, like myself. The first-time offenders were kept completely separate from the rest, and were working at the water management plant in Dej city”, Stăuceanu explains.

The detention regime at Gherla was probably very similar to the extermination regime applied in the Nazi camps: 10 to 12 hours of physical work on a construction site, which was cordoned off with double fences of barbed-wire and with guarding towers, exactly like those to be found at the border.

I could see for myself now that the country I was living in was nothing else but a big prison, as similar systems kept in both inmates inside the prisons, and regular citizens inside the country. Also, the fact that border-jumpers were put in the same prison with hardened criminals, though their only crime was their attempt to defect, showed how the communist regime regarded us: we were as dangerous to the regime, as the actual criminals were to the society at large,” Stăuceanu thinks.

The Securitate took him under surveillance

Once he got out of the Gherla prison, Stăuceanu became a target for the Securitate. His parents in Liteni, told him the Securitate people already inquired about him, after his release. According to a note sent by the penitentiary to the Securitate office in the Suceava County, were his family resided, Stăuceanu and his family were to be closely followed by the Securitate informants.

Stăuceanu found this note in his Securitate file, which he studied at the CNSAS.

The Steel Works at Reşiţa refused to hire him, though he had worked there before; he was told they had no place for “traitors”. After many attempts to find employment, he got one with a small division servicing elevators for the municipal real-estate of the Reşiţa city.

A certificate he qualified as a construction worker, while in prison; from the personal photo archive of Mihai Stăuceanu

A new attempt at illegal crossing of the border

One year after getting out of prison, Stăuceanu started again to consider jumping the border.

I was getting close to the border, when I was caught by the border-guards. They kept pressing me to confess that my intention was to cross it illegally. They did not find any documents on me or my friend, who wanted to help me – so they had nothing to prove my intent, except from forcing me into a confession. The beating I got this time, in the border-guards tower at Naidăş was far worse than the first one. But knowing what lied ahead of me, I said to myself I would rather die than admit I wanted to cross the border.

SGateway to Naidăş village; by Marina Constantinoiu

The second border jump: success!

Five years after his first attempt at crossing the border, Stăuceanu decided to have a second go, this time, together with a close-friend, but also with another person he did not know.

In the fall of 1981, his second attempt was successful. They used the Naidăş-Biserica Albă border area. The Yugoslav border-guards got to them before they were able to reach Biserica Albă; it may be that they unwittingly touched a warning system. They were sentenced to a 30-day prison-time, for illegal border-crossing. Stăuceanu reached now the prison in Vrsec, along other 40 something Romanian defectors.

They were transferred to another penitentiary, at Padinska Skela, near Belgrade. The system there was different: defectors from the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Romania, Russia, and all over the Eastern-block waited each Friday evening to find their names on a list of 45 people. The Yugoslav authorities took those out of the prison and transported them to other borders, presumably to Austria or Italy.

The release document from the Italian refugee camp at Latina; from the personal photo archive of Mihai Stăuceanu

Stăuceanu spent 15 days at Padinska Skela. The living conditions there were appalling: they slept on mattresses placed on the floor, it was filthy, and they went on a hunger-strike to got access to showers.

We were treated worse than animals, that the Serbs caught, and now had no idea what to do with,” Stăuceanu says now. His turn came to be set free at a Western border. On the road to Maribor, the bus stopped and two to three people were set free. He was among the last five in the bus, who were set free close to the Italian border, in the Nova Gorica-Monfalcone area.

They were registered by the police in Monfalcone, had train tickets provided, and were sent to the refugee camp in the Italian city of Latina, close to Rome.

I got my political refugee status based on the documents I had released by the prison at Gherla, and following the inquiry I was subjected to by a four or five people committee, which was analyzing the situation of each political asylum seeker,” he says.

He was accepted by Canada, to emigrate with the status of “voluntary exile.” A new life was awaiting him on the new continent.

Mihai Stăuceanu and his Canadian wife, Cecile; from the personal photo archive of Mihai Stăuceanu

An adventure for the whole family

Between 1984 and 1989, Stăuceanu came back to Romania four times – the trips were mentioned in his Securitate file, now held by the CNSAS. He was under close surveillance both in Montreal, Canada, where he settled, and in Romania. His trips aimed at legally getting out of the country his brother and his brother’s family, who were living in Lugoj, Timiş County.

After five years of failed attempts, Stăuceanu went on a hunger-strike in front of the Romanian Embassy in Ottawa. He started it on September 25, 1989, and stopped ten days later, when he got the approval for his brother to leave Romania, accompanied by his own family. On December 5, 1989, they all arrived to Canada.

The communist regime make-over of the legislation, to fake democratization

One devious trick the communist regime performed in its legal system, in 1969, was to wipe out any reference to political offenses against the State, and turn those “crimes” into regular crimes, penalized by the country’s criminal laws. Thus, the regime got a face-lift, as becoming more democratic, when, in fact, it continued to punish defectors.

Stăuceanu’s fights for a legal precedent

Stăuceanu took the Romanian State to court. He filed two actions with the Suceava Tribunal. One with the Civil Court, under Law 221/2009, which deals with the political convictions carried between 1945 and 1989; the file number is 3675/86/2014; the second action he filed was with the Administrative Court, against the public institution responsible to make financial reparations to the victims of political trials during communism; the file number is 4811/86/2014.

The ruling on the latter was suspended until the Supreme Court of Justice will rule on the appeal to his first civil action, which is now under consideration by this court, as file number 254/39/2015.

Stăuceanu hopes the ruling in his case would serve as a legal precedent for other former border-jumpers to use. The court of first instance agreed that his conviction as a criminal, by ruling 158, of May 23, 1975, of the Oraviţa Court, was in fact politically motivated. But the financial compensation is still pending a ruling from the Supreme Court.

„I felt I had to leave that communist State at all costs; it imposed on its citizens a life-style I could not agree with: mendacity in all aspects of life, and the personality cult for dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. I understood, early on in life, that we were all inhabiting a large prison cell, called the Socialist Republic of Romania”, Stăuceanu says.

Mihai Stauceanu passed away in January 2021. God bless his memory!

Readers who want to volunteer more information on the topic may reach the investigative journalists at marina.constantinoiugmail.com, and istvan.deak2014@gmail.com

About Marina Constantinoiu Istvan Deak
Marina Constantinoiu și Istvan Deak sunt autorii unei serii de producții multimedia dedicate fenomenului frontierist, cu care s-a confruntat România în anii comunismului. Fenomenul, care a marcat o lungă perioadă, între 1948 și 1989, reprezintă o pagină de istorie recentă prea puțin sau chiar deloc cunoscută multora dintre români.

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