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Playwright and Czech leader Vaclav Havel dies aged 75

19th December 2011

Acclaimed poet and playwright Vaclav Havel, who became the first president of the Czech Republic, has died at the age of 75.

The former dissident writer, whose work often criticised his country's failure to observe human rights, was lauded for presiding over Czechoslovakia's transition to democracy and a free-market economy in the early nineties.

Born in Prague in October 1936, Havel developed a love of writing at an early age and published his first poetry collection in 1954, before turning his hand to theatre.

Compelled to pursue the humanitarian values of Czech culture, Havel sought to express this through his work and received international acclaim for his first full-length play, The Garden Party, in 1963.

The increasingly political nature of his plays saw him fall out of favour with Czechoslovakian authorities, however, leading to his work being banned in 1968.

Havel's absence from the arts world led to him becoming more politically active, while his banned work was secretly distributed across Czechoslovakia, adding to his reputation of being a leading revolutionary.

In 1979 he co-founded the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted, with his involvement in the organisation leading to several spells in prison, though the five-year term he served between 1979 and 1984 did result in the publication of the acclaimed Letters to Olga, containing correspondence with his beloved wife.

Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia following a unanimous vote of the Federal Assembly in December 1989 and, after the Slovaks issued their Declaration of Independence in 1992, he became the first president of the Czech Republic in 1993, remaining in office until 2003.

His efforts to promote stability and peace in his country saw Havel awarded the International Gandhi Peace Prize, as well as Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award, while his literary work resulted in him being elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1993.

Vaclav Havel died as a result of long-term respiratory problems on December 18th, prompting tributes from the likes of the Dalai Lama, US president Barack Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel, who described him as 'a great European'.

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