BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Arpad Goncz, a much-loved Hungarian writer and translator who survived a communist-era life sentence for taking part in the 1956 anti-Soviet revolt and later become Hungary's first democratically chosen president, died Tuesday at age 93.
Parliament deputy speaker Istvan Hiller announced the death to lawmakers, adding, "he was a legend already during his lifetime." Lawmakers stood for a minute of silence in honor of his memory.
"(Goncz) was loyal all his life to patriotism, democracy and humanity's European system of values," said President Janos Ader.
A statement from Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government said Goncz had "served the renascent Hungarian democracy to the best of his knowledge for ten years."
Goncz was charged with treason and sentenced to life in prison by Hungary's Communist authorities for taking part in the abortive anti-Soviet uprising of 1956. He was released in 1963 under a general amnesty aimed at easing tensions with the West.
Goncz was elected to a five-year term by the parliament after a free election that ended four decades of communist rule in 1990, and was later re-elected by parliament for a further five years.
Though his post was largely ceremonial, Goncz was credited by many with deftly using his limited powers to enforce Hungary's fledgling democratic constitution, often putting him at odds with the post-communist government.
Although he lacked the Bohemian glamour of fellow dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, Goncz's fatherly manner endeared him to many Hungarians, winning him the moniker "Uncle Arpi."
Born Feb. 10, 1922, in Budapest, he earned a law degree in 1944 and also studied agronomy.
As World War II drew to a close, Goncz was called up to fight for Hungary — then allied with Nazi Germany — but escaped from his unit and joined the anti-Nazi resistance, helping to rescue Jews and others being persecuted.
He remained politically active during the turmoil that followed the war, becoming secretary of the populist Independent Smallholders Party. The party scored a landslide victory in the first postwar election, but it never was able to govern effectively as the Communists steadily usurped power, finally eliminating all opposition in rigged elections in 1948.
Goncz worked as a locksmith and an agronomist until running afoul of the Communists for political activities in support of the 1956 uprising.
In prison he learned English and began doing translations. Upon his release he worked as both a playwright and as a translator. He completed the first translation into Hungarian of "The Lord of the Rings," which had been left unfinished by another translator, Adam Rez. He also translated works by Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow and John Updike, among other prominent writers.
In the years after his release from prison, he worked as a translator and playwright, resuming political activity in 1988 as a co-founder of the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats. The party finished second to the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum in the 1990 elections, but Goncz became president in a compromise between the rival parties.
Once in office, Goncz often blocked government appointments and legislation as relations soured between the liberals and the conservative coalition led by Jozsef Antall, who retained a respectful relationship with Goncz despite their political differences.
Goncz repeatedly refused to dismiss the heads of state-run radio and television as the government, with its popularity waning, tried to tighten its grip on the media. That earned him praise from press freedom advocates but drew the wrath of right-wing nationalists, who accused him of overstepping his powers and being a puppet of Jewish and Western interests.
After Ferenc Madl, a conservative, replaced him as president in 2000, Goncz stepped out of the limelight, devoting himself to charitable causes.
The government said it would take care of the funeral arrangements in consultation with Goncz's family.
He is survived by his wife, Maria Zsuzsanna, and four children, including daughter Kinga, a former foreign minister.