Democracy Dies in Darkness

Obituaries

Iulian Vlad, head of Romania’s secret police during 1989 revolution, dies at 86

By Matt Schudel

September 30, 2017 at 5:55 PM

Iulian Vlad, who led Romania's Securitate, or feared secret police, in the final years of the country's authoritarian communist regime, and who was jailed for his role in suppressing a popular revolt that led to the overthrow of president Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, died Sept. 30. He was 86.

Petru Neghiu, a Romanian military officer, confirmed the death to Antena 3, a Romanian television network. Other details were not immediately available.

Mr. Vlad, a onetime general whose rank was stripped from him after his 1991 conviction for "favoring genocide," began working for the Securitate in 1951.

After the Romanian government effectively came under Ceausescu's control in 1965, Mr. Vlad continued his ascent, holding a number of top posts in the interior ministry, the governmental base of the secret police. He directed the ministry's education program and its military school, from which Securitate agents were chosen.

In 1987, Mr. Vlad became the chief of the secret police, with an estimated 25,000 officers under his command and another 700,000 informants scattered among the country's 23 million citizens. The Securitate enforced the doctrinaire policies of Ceausescu, including strict limits on the media, dissent and freedom of speech. Along with Ceausescu and the imperious first lady, Elena, Mr. Vlad became one of the most despised figures in Romania.

Unrest began to spread in the 1980s, as the country was gripped by desperate shortages of food, fuel, medical supplies and other necessities. By December 1989, people in the western city of Timisoara were in open revolt against Ceausescu's regime, storming the offices of the Communist Party and ripping pictures of Ceausescu from the walls.

At a Politburo meeting on Dec. 17, 1989, Ceausescu berated his ministers, including Mr. Vlad, for not stopping the rebellion and accused them of treason. Soldiers fired blanks at the crowds, leading to an outburst from Ceausescu, recorded in the meeting's official minutes:

"I didn't think you would shoot with blanks! That is like a rain shower. Those who entered the party building should not leave the building alive. They've got to kill the hooligans!"

Elena Ceausescu, who was present at the meeting, said the protesters should be locked in the Securitate building's basement. "Not even one should see the light again," she said.

Security forces did open fire in Timisoara, killing and wounding many demonstrators. (The exact number of casualties remains in dispute.)

The spirit of revolution quickly spread across the country and reached the capital of Bucharest. On Dec. 21, Ceausescu had his defense minister killed for failing to quell the uprising. Mr. Vlad pledged support to the president, according to later courtroom testimony, saying that the "army would not be disarmed by revolutionaries."

For several days, battles raged on the streets of Bucharest, claiming 1,000 or more victims. Mr. Vlad's Securitate troops, including snipers armed with infrared devices on their rifles, were particularly feared.

Ceausescu and his wife fled the capital by helicopter, as military leaders switched sides and joined the revolutionaries. Mr. Vlad then claimed newfound loyalty toward the people his secret police had been attacking days before.

As the Ceausescus attempted to escape through the countryside in commandeered cars, they were captured and brought before a tribunal. In a trial of less than two hours, they were convicted of genocide and other crimes and summarily executed on Christmas Day.

Mr. Vlad was arrested along with other officials, and the Securitate apparatus was dismantled. Supporters of the revolution immediately questioned his loyalty because he did not ask his former troops to lay down their arms.

One member of the country's new governing council, Silviu Brucan, a dissident who had been personally interrogated by Mr. Vlad in 1989, confronted the once-feared Securitate chief.

"Don't you know me?" Brucan said. "Haven't we met before?"

The most serious charge against Mr. Vlad, "complicity to genocide" — which carried a possible life sentence — was changed without explanation to "favoring genocide," which had a maximum sentence of only 10 years.

He was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison. After an appeal, his conviction was upheld in 1992, and he received an additional three-year sentence for "aggravated murder."

Mr. Vlad was released in January 1994 under a provision offering clemency to prisoners more than 60 years old.

Iulian Vlad was born Feb. 23, 1931, in Gogosita, Romania. Little is known of his youth, other than that he joined the Communist Party at 15 and attended a military college and the University of Bucharest.

Information about survivors could not be confirmed.

After his release from prison, Mr. Vlad maintained a low profile during Romania's prolonged struggles to find political stability.

The few public comments made by Mr. Vlad came mostly at his trial in 1991.

"What I did," he said, "I did for my country."

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Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.

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