Jan Flemr, AFP Updated December 19, 2011, 4:22 am
Former Czech president and hero of the Velvet Revolution Vaclav Havel, who steered his country peacefully to independence from Soviet rule in 1989, has died at the age of 75. The one-time dissident died in his sleep at dawn on Sunday in his weekend house northeast of Prague after a lengthy illness, his secretary Sabina Tancevova said.
Tributes poured in for the statesman and playwright who was hailed as a "great European" and the "soul of the Czech revolution" that peacefully toppled communism in his country.
People held vigils in Prague's central Wenceslas Square, the focal point of anti-communist rallies in 1989, and at Prague Castle, the seat of Czech presidents.
Havel, president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and of the successor Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003, had long battled poor health, partly caused by the five years he spent in communist jails. A one-time chain smoker, Havel had grappled with respiratory problems since he had part of his lung removed in 1996 to stop cancer. Current President Vaclav Klaus said Havel had become a symbol of the modern Czech state.
"His personality, name and work substantially helped the Czech Republic swiftly become a part of the community of free and democratic countries," he added. Under Havel's presidency, the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and later became a member of the European Union in 2004.
Havel was born in Prague on October 5, 1936 into a wealthy family which lost its assets as the communists took power in 1948. He established himself as a leading figure on the scene of the Czechoslovak theatre of the absurd in the 1960s, before being banned from theatres after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He was responsible for drawing up Charter 77, a 1977 manifesto challenging the communists to live up to their international promises to respect human rights, and he kept fighting the regime which earned him five years in prison.
As communism was toppled in the peaceful Velvet Revolution, Havel was the first choice for the top job in Czechoslovakia, which then split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. "His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon," US President Barack Obama said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Havel had "devoted his life to the cause of human freedom" and "led the Czech people out of tyranny". "Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt," Cameron said in a statement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, also hailed Havel as a "great European" whose "fight for freedom and democracy was as unforgettable as his great humanity".
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle described him as "the soul of the Czech revolution". France's President Nicolas Sarkozy said the Czech Republic had "lost of one its great patriots, France a friend and Europe one of its wisest men". Poland's former president Lech Walesa, who, like Havel, went from anti-communist dissident to become head of state after the 1989 peaceful collapse of communism, also paid tribute to Havel.
"He was a great spokesman in the struggle for freedom, for democracy and for freedom from the yolk of communism," Walesa told AFP. "His voice will be greatly missed in Europe, especially now when it's in great crisis." Havel's health woes stemmed from a poorly treated case of pneumonia he suffered while he was jailed by the communist regime in the 1980s for dissident activity.
Earlier this year, Havel was taken to hospital with acute bronchitis, from which he was never able to fully recover. The illness also caused "a loss of balance, memory loss and weight loss", Havel said in an interview. A few months ago, Havel retreated to his country home to convalesce and last returned to Prague to meet Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on December 10.
Havel married actress Dagmar Veskrnova, 20 years his junior, in 1997, following the death of his first wife Olga a year earlier. He had no children.
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