Prague: Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who was jailed by Communists and then went on to become Czech president and a symbol of peace and freedom after leading the bloodless "Velvet Revolution," died at age 75 on Sunday.
The former chain smoker, who survived several operations for lung cancer and a burst intestine in the late 1990s that nearly killed him and left him frail for the rest of his life, died after a long respiratory illness.
He was with his wife Dagmar and a nun who had cared for him at his country home in Hradecek, north of Prague.
"On Sunday Vaclav Havel has left us," his secretary, Sabina Tancevova, said in a statement.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter: "Vaclav Havel was one of the greatest Europeans of our age. His voice for freedom paved the way for a Europe whole and free."
The diminutive playwright who invited the Rolling Stones to medieval Prague castle, took Bill Clinton to a Prague jazz club and was a friend of the Dalai Lama, rose to fame after facing down Prague's communist regime over its abuses.
His dissident plays were banned for two decades and he was thrown into prison several times after launching Charter 77, a manifesto demanding the communist government adhere to international standards for human rights.
Just six months after completing his last jail sentence, he led hundreds of thousands of protesters in Prague's cobblestone streets in a peaceful uprising in November 1989 that ended Soviet-backed rule.
Just over a month later, he was installed as president in Prague castle.
"I am extremely moved," an emotional Prime Minister Petr Necas told Czech Television when told of Havel's death.
"He was a symbol and the face of our republic, and he is one of the most prominent figures of the politics of the last and the start of this century. His departure is a huge loss. He still had a lot to say in political and social life."
Havel became a guarantee of peaceful transition to democracy and allowed the small country of 10 million to punch well above its weight in international politics.
"Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred" was Havel's slogan that Czechs remember from the "Velvet Revolution" days.
In later years, that slogan was often quoted in sarcasm as Czechs' initial enthusiasm towards free market democracy collided with the reality of economic reforms and corrupt politics.
Havel lost some of his allure in the later years of his presidency. As president-philosopher, he struggled to uphold morality in a tumultuous era of economic transformation and murky business deals.
"He did not want to be a president," said Petruska Sustrova, a prominent Czech dissident and one of the first to sign Charter 77. "Ideally, he wanted to sit in a pub and reconcile quarrels. He was not very keen to enter politics, he thought it would cut him off from the normal world."
His absurdist dramas, whose characters often struggled to communicate in the empty language of communist-era rhetoric, took to the stage in the 1960s, a more liberal era crushed by tanks in the 1968 Soviet-led invasion.
Havel's plays then disappeared in censors' vaults, and the author was forced into menial jobs such as rolling beer barrels.
Struggle for the soul
Born in 1936, the son of a rich building contractor, Havel was denied a good education after the communists seized power in 1948 and stripped the family of its wealth.
Much of his presidential term was cast as a struggle for the soul of democratic reforms against right-wing economist Vaclav Klaus. When Klaus served as prime minister, Havel launched a stinging attack against him, which many thought was a step too far.
Angered by the looming breakup of Czechoslovakia, Havel quit as president in 1992, but soon became leader of the newly created Czech Republic.
Human rights stayed high on his agenda, as did anxiety about the environment and the pursuit of moral values in the globalising world, and he was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
His sparring partner Klaus eventually replaced him as president in 2003.
"He was a great and well-deserving man and will be greatly missed. May he rest in peace," said Polish dissident leader Lech Walesa. "He certainly deserved a Nobel Peace Prize, but in this world not everything is just. He was above all a theoretician who fought with the word and pen."
He repeatedly irked Chinese communists by hosting the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, most recently this month. He also met Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on Havel's nomination.
"I spent a few years in prison, but perhaps I would be there three times as long if there were not for international solidarity," Havel said at a seminar on Myanmar in late 2007.
Havel returned to writing, and published a new play, "Leaving," which won rave reviews and premiered in 2008 and was later turned into a film.
When asked in a magazine interview that year if he wanted to be remembered as a politician or playwright, he said: "I would like it to say that (he) was a playwright who acted as a citizen, and thanks to that he later spent a part of his life in a political position."
Havel twice needed electric shock therapy to revive his heart, once after life-saving surgery to repair an intestine that ruptured during a holiday in Austria.
Those scares followed cancer surgery in 1996 to remove two small, malignant tumours and half his right lung. He also suffered from pneumonia and chronic bronchitis.
He was last hospitalised for the disease in March and had been very frail, since then, appearing in a wheelchair during the Dali Lama's visit.
Giving condolences for the well-loved man, who could sometimes be seen walking his dog near his former Prague Castle office, global leaders hailed his example and highlighted his role in reuniting Europe after the fall of communism.
"The man has died but the legacy of his poems, plays and above all his ideas and personal example will remain alive for many generations to come," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
"As he said himself in 1975 in an open letter to Gustav Husak, then president of the communist regime: 'Life cannot be destroyed for good, neither can history be brought entirely to a halt.'"
First Published: Monday, December 19, 2011, 00:02