BUCHAREST, Romania — The Romanian-born American ended his 17-day hunger strike Wednesday afternoon when the government, after years of delay and inaction, agreed to open a fresh investigation into the beating death of his father, a prominent dissident, in a communist-era prison three decades ago.
“There is a high chance the next step is going to take a very long time,” said Mr. Ursu, 56. “It is a brand new fight.”
A day earlier, in an ornate, narrow courtroom just across town, Alexandru Visinescu, the 89-year-old former camp commander of Ramnicu Sarat prison, sat quietly as the widow of a former prisoner, breaking into tears, told the judge how her husband weighed less than 75 pounds when he was released.
His trial, the first brought against a government official from the communist era in nearly a quarter-century, is expected to last as long as two years.
Romania has long had a reputation as one of the most reluctant among former communist states to uncover the dark pathways of its totalitarian past, particularly involving the Securitate, its dreaded secret police. But in recent years, with the announcement that Mr. Visinescu and perhaps others would finally be prosecuted, optimism sparked that Romania might at last be prepared to confront its brutal history.
But these two cases, and others lingering in the shadows, help explain why that spark has dimmed. Bureaucratic delays, withheld documents, unresponsive officials, public apathy and the slow grinding of investigations and litigation — while victims, perpetrators and witnesses grow old and vanish — has created a growing sense that a full reckoning may never come.
“People are fed up and think nothing will ever happen,” said Marius Stan, a political scientist and former investigator who has spent years researching communist-era crimes. “Among the public, there is fatigue, disappointment.”
Why Romania has been so much more reluctant to uncover its past is explained, in part, by the way the country moved out of communism. Unlike Poland and other Eastern bloc states, the toppling of Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989 was in some ways more of a palace coup, with many of the former top officials surviving the transition and lingering in the government for years and decades.
“The situation is very complicated,” said Cosmin Budeanca, director general of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile, the government-funded group responsible for searching the records made available to it for evidence of old crimes. It is a phrase he uses often.
Mr. Budeanca, a historian, described their task as sifting for evidence, building case files and presenting them to prosecutors, who can choose to do what they will with them. But only a portion of the relevant documents are open to them, and many of the archives that are available are in a jumble, without indexes, a sea of paper.
The institute’s mandate is to deal first with the oldest cases, from the 1950s and ’60s.
Even in Mr. Visinescu’s case, only a handful of witnesses could be traced. Mr. Visinescu, a former prison commander, is accused of torture and of being involved in the deaths of at least 12 political prisoners between 1956 and 1963.
For more recent cases, like that of Mr. Ursu’s father, it is even more difficult.
“Current Romanian politicians are willing to bring charges against people from the ’50s and ’60s, but they are very reluctant to go after people from the Ceausescu period,” said Vladimir Tismaneanu, a professor of politics at the University of Maryland who headed a 2006 commission set up by the Romanian government to examine communist-era crimes. “The main issue is political will.”
Romania is in the final 10 days of a presidential election.
“Romania must really come to terms with its own recent history,” said Klaus Iohannis, the candidate of the center-right Christian Liberal Alliance. “It is a major problem, I think.”
Mr. Iohannis promised to reignite a national debate on the topic, if elected, and called for the creation of a national museum of the communist era.
His opponent, the current prime minister, Victor Ponta, representing the center-left Social Democrats, agreed that the past should not be forgotten, but seemed eager that Romania look forward.
“It is important to know the past, but I think now most of the political leadership is much more focused on the future,” he said.
Mr. Budeanca was not holding his breath.
“It is a sensitive topic in Romania, the time of the communists,” he said. “You hear about it from politicians only in the time of elections. After the election, all of this interest disappears. It is complicated.”
Mr. Ursu’s father, Gheorghe, died in detention in 1985. According to later testimony, he was repeatedly beaten by guards and by other prisoners.
Mr. Ursu and others say that the person most responsible for his death was Marin Pirvulescu, a former major in the Securitate who was in charge of interrogations.
Mr. Ursu, who moved with his mother to Chicago in 1986, often returned to Romania after 1989 to petition the courts and politicians for justice. He staged a hunger strike in 2000, ending it when investigations were opened involving two militia members who were convicted of murder in 2003 for actually conducting some of the beatings.
But Mr. Ursu continued to press for a case against Mr. Pirvulescu. The current hunger strike was begun, he said, when he had amassed what he considered to be a mountain of evidence, yet still hit resistance from Romanian officials.
The gaunt and unshaven Mr. Ursu spent most of the past weeks on a sagging blue sofa in the ornate meeting room of the Group for Social Change, a nongovernmental organization in Bucharest. Dull light filled the room, silhouetting a chandelier and ornate plasterwork.
The news that his demand had been met came with the weary knowledge, he said, that bringing the investigation to fruition, if that ever happens, will be the work of many, many months.
“I hoped for this solution,” Mr. Ursu said, “but I didn’t think I had too many chances, to be honest.”