The Leonte case: A Romanian student killed in Hungary, by a Romanian border-guard in pursuit

The Leonte case. A Romanian student killed in Hungary, by a Romanian border-guard in pursuit, made international headlines

Timp estimat de citire: 12 minute

Student Gheorghe Leonte was shot dead on May 29, 1987, close to the Beba-Veche village, in the Triplex Confinium area (or triple border, in Latin), where the borders of Romania, Hungary and Serbia converge into the Western-most point on Romania’s map, at 20°15′44″ East longitude.

Romeo Bălan, former chief-prosecutor with the Military Prosecutor’s Office in Timişoara, during 1988-1989, recalled the case and shared his views in an interview with us:

„It’s the case of a border-guard chasing, mounted on horse-back, a defector, into the neighboring states. The horse-mounted soldier crossed Romania’s border to shoot the defector. I do not recall what was the ruling in his case, but I know that he was indicted for manslaughter, not murder.

The border-guard defended his action saying that if he had intended to shoot to kill, then he would have done it from the start, not chased  the defector over the borders; so, he claimed his intent was to apprehend the defector and that the gun went off accidentally.

This is a legal argument, for sure. Was there present the intent to kill, or was there just an accident?”, recalled Bălan of the events at the Triplex Confinium.

The border-guard crossed the border on horse-back

Johann Steiner and Doina Magheţi state in their book The tombs are silent. Witness accounts from the bloodiest border in Europe (2009) , that the Western media became aware of and addressed the case because Hungary issued an official complaint against Romania, and made public the facts.

According to the two authors, the border-guard crossed the international borders to bring back Gheorghe Leonte but, since the latter defended himself, the border-guard first shot him, and then dragged his corpse back to the Romanian side of the border.

This soldier is one of the few who were indicted and found guilty as charged. Only that he was charged with illegally crossing the international border and using a fire-arm, and not with killing a defector,” point out the two authors. Magheţi learned of only eight border-guards found guilty for the unlawful use of fire-arms.

Border land-mark at Triplex Confinium

Former military prosecutor Bălan recalls

„I recall another case in the Jimbolia area, occurring a little before December 1989. The defector tried to force the border with driving an agricultural equipment. The border-guards shot both at the vehicle and at the man, and hit him in the legs.

In the first half of 1990 that was a big case, since the man complained for being left an invalid, unable to regain full use of his legs. As a rule, the border-guards were not indicted for murder, but for involuntary manslaughter.

The Triplex Confinium case was sent to court with this same indictment. At the time, a murder charge carried a 15 to 20-year prison-term, while the involuntary manslaughter charge carried a 2 to 6-year prison-term,” Bălan explained.

Romeo Bălan, former military prosecutor; by Bogdan Constantinoiu

Laws to be enforced: Decree 367/1971, for the use of fire-arms

Former military prosecutor Bălan also explained the context of enforcing the law at the time:

„Directly applicable was Decree 367, of 1971, which regulated the use of fire-arms. But its articles did not refer in detail to how the fire-arms were to be used by the various sections of the military, as it is now; the general provision was to first call the person to stop, second – to fire a warning shot into the air, and third – to fire at the person refusing to stop. That was the law to be observed at the time.

Still, as an investigator, it was pretty difficult to establish that the sequence of shots was abiding by the law, in other words, that indeed the second shot was sent into the air, and the third one into the person being shot, and not the other way around.

One other provision of the law enabled the border-guard to fire directly at the person, with no prior calls or warning shots, if he felt threatened in any way or was taken by surprise.

There were also provisions, as there are now, to not shoot at women, pregnant women, minors, or towards the area belonging to the neighboring state,” Bălan explains.

Border-guard tower; by Bogdan Constantinoiu

Defecting turned from a political crime into a regular crime

In communist Romania, the illegal crossing of the border to defect to the West was a political offense; but a 1969 change in the Criminal Code deleted all offenses listed as political. However, many of them stayed punishable under the law, as regular crimes.

In other words, this was Nicolae Ceauşescu’s window dressing, to show the West that Romania had no political dissenters or prisoners, when in fact defectors were still sent to prison, and the desire to live in another country and attempting to get there was punished as a crime.

Post-communist Romania still has to make amends and rehabilitate the former defectors, with recognizing the political nature of their crime, and thus enable them to access the reparations all former political prisoners are entitled to, under the Romanian law.

Germany is a good-practice example in that regard, since former East-German defectors had been rehabilitated and receive now stipends from the State, as a form of financial compensation.

Former military prosecutor Bălan explains the Criminal Code as applied to defectors

„The article to criminalize border jumping was no. 245, in the Criminal Code. These acts, the defectors embarked on, and their subsequent punishment, may be regarded as a political statement which was punished by the regime.

But it takes a legislative initiative in Parliament to actually make it happen. It would be about time for these victims to have their plight recognized too, by the State, since many other categories of people being wronged by the regime got their own restitution laws.

The prison terms for defecting were between two to three years; this may not seem a long time, but having these years counted to the existing working years, would make a small difference to their pensions.

I always compared the way Romania dealt with the matter, with the way Germany did. The Germans convicted the members of the former Political Bureau of the Democratic Republic of Germany, for the 300 people shot at the Berlin Wall.

In Germany’s case there was a decision of the top-tear of the political establishment. This made possible for the Germans to convict a few political leaders, a fact which did not occur in Romania’s case”, Bălan explains.

He also points out that the way Romania dealt with defectors at the time depended a great deal on the way the neighboring states dealt with them, in particularly Yugoslavia.

„There were times when the Yugoslav authorities took the defectors in custody; there were times when they just gave them an administrative fine; there were times when they returned all defectors to Romania, and times when they chose not to return them, particularly those that had an ethnic background that allowed them to claim that they crossed the border to be reunited with their families.

And, of course, there were times when the Yugoslav authorities tried and sent to prison the defectors. They kept them in special facilities or camps, to first check on them. After all, it is at the State latitude to take any measures it sees fit to protect itself. Even though we belonged to the same communist camp, there were always suspicions present as to the intentions one might have had.

I am not familiar with the criminal law or the criteria the Yugoslav State used at the time. I can only state that for the border area I was assigned to, there was a border-guard regiment at Jimbolia and at Sânicolau Mare. Romanian military officers in charge with the criminal investigation were also those meeting their counterparts in Yugoslavia to perform the transfer of defectors”, Bălan says.

Division 1B, for spying on Romanians in the border counties

“The crime of illegal border crossing was not directly investigated by prosecutors, but by officers in in the border-guard military unit, in charge with criminal investigations. These officers were also cooperating with the Division 1B, in the Securitate secret service.

The Division 1 was in charge with gathering information inside Romania, with its sub-unit 1B in charge with collecting intelligence from the border counties only.

The prosecutor was not following himself the physical evidence, like the tracks on the border trail; he got a fully documented file, and was now responsible for assessing if there was any intent from that individual to cross the border, in order to indict him or not.

“I wanted to cross the border, but I changed my mind …”

It is an interesting discussion here: at one point, people became savvy about the legal provisions, and claimed that they did not intent to cross the border in the first place, or admitted to have had the intent, initially, but then changing their minds about it, just before being apprehended by the border-guards.

For those who were returned by Yugoslavia there was no question of establishing the intent. The intent was there, if they already made it to the other country. But more defectors were caught before making it to Yugoslavia, then those being returned by the neighboring state.

So, for these people, who were caught while attempting to cross the border, it was also clear they had an intent to cross if, for instance, they lived in the other corner of the country and were found wandering about the 20-kilometer border-area, with a map, a binocular and a compass on them.

Observation point in the border area; by Bogdan Constantinoiu
Observation point in the border area; by Bogdan Constantinoiu

„Nevertheless, they could still claim they changed their minds about leaving, and turn their backs to the border, when caught”. In these cases one could not indict them for attempting to illegally cross the border. Or, at least, proving their intent was very difficult.

As for the violence exerted on the defectors, I can only state what I know, and I know no one ever complained to me about it. On the other hand, I have no reason to disbelieve those that now state they were victims of poor treatment while in custody.

Why would they make such claims now? So, I do believe them, all the more so since between being caught on the border trail and reaching the prosecutor, the defectors were handled by many people,” Bălan further stated.

Other journalistic investigations round the picture of abuse and use of fire-arms against defectors

In Doina Magheţi’s book The Border (1999, and a 2nd print in 2007) , the former Army officer turned journalist, tells about her investigation into the deaths occurring at Romania’s Western border.

So does journalist Brînduşa Armanca in her book The border jumpers. The recent history, as recorded in media reports (2nd print in 2011).

Books dedicated to the Romanian border-jumpers

They point out how difficult was to document the stories, since, first off, the files were listed according to the names of the military under investigation, and not according to the names of their victims. Second, access to the archives was denied by the military officers in charge locally. Third, information may be lost forever, as files are due for cremation after a certain number of years.

Magheţi found that only one Army officer was indicted for shooting a defector in the Western border area, in the files still with the Military Prosecutor’s Office in the Timiş County, at the time of her investigation.

The border-guard military unit in Timişoara pointed out that all cases pertaining to defectors were solved, and all soldiers but one had been cleared of any wrong-doing, as they acted in compliance with Decree 367/1971.

We were also informed that any bullet casing being spent had to be accounted for; further more, the border-guards patrolled the border in large groups, hence illegal acts were difficult to occur and go unaccounted for; also, a deterring factor against concealing any misconduct or breach to the law was the infiltration of counter-intelligence operatives who reported directly to the Securitate,” Magheţi wrote.

Still, in the documents she managed to see, Magheţi counted 13 defectors killed between 1983 and 1989.

Armanca details, in her turn, the procedure in place during communist times to mystify the truth regarding the actual events which resulted in the death of the defectors:

The Military Prosecutor’s Office opened files to investigate the possible illegal use of the fire-arm by the border-guards, not the death of the Romanian citizens attempting to defect – hence the difficulty to access the information today, since the names of the victims are not part of the identification of the files still to be found in the military archives …

A lot of paper-work covered these cases, like photos and drawings from the crime scene, statements of the soldiers, memos and military documentation. Still, in spite of all the details one fact is conspicuously missing from being documented: the brutality used in reprimanding the defectors.

Very seldom one could see soldiers being taken to court and even rarer being convicted for the illegal use of the fire-arm, or for severely abusing the defectors.

The military commanders were apprehensive to not have a lot of illegal crossings recorded in their area of authority, so they instilled their subordinates the idea they should act with extreme brutality, Armanca explains.

Of the cases she studied, one stood out as a case in point for the mystification of facts: Leşan Savir, 19, killed in 1988, by gun shots to the lungs.

In his statement, the border-guard identified as C.I., said he fired his gun since there were two or three defectors, and one of them, the one he shot, refused to stop when called to, Armanca writes in her book.

The file holds eight detailed drawings, in colored pencils, which establish the route the defector was taking, the position of the soldier who fired the gun, six photos of the victim, documenting the position and place it fell. The file also holds markings of the various items at the crime-scene, as well as information on the entry and exit wounds, the description of the clothing, etc.

All these documents prove, contrary to the claim made by the soldier in his statement, that he shot the victim straight into the chest, and not in the legs.

Another file documents the death of Ciucur Ion, 31, killed at Livezile in 1983, for “not abiding to the calls of the border-guard to stop, and hitting the latter with a net-bag in which he held various items”.

The wording of the file is that the defector was wounded at the shoulder. But the drawings and all the other documents show that the victim sustained a round of 25 bullets entering his body, which exited in various parts of the body, like the abdomen, the lungs, etc.

Still, soldiers and officers rarely made it to court, on any charges at all, Armanca pointed out.

For instance, „In file 192/P/1985, soldier N.I., of the UM 02872 Timişoara military unit, was investigated for murder, in compliance with art. 174 of the Criminal Code. But the Prosecutor’s Office decided on July 8, 1985, to not indict N.I.,” Armanca wrote.

Readers who want to volunteer more information on the topic may reach the investigative journalists at marina.constantinoiu@gmail.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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