World leaders bid farewell to Vaclav Havel

Reuters News
|
Posted: Dec 23, 2011 7:33 AM
World leaders bid farewell to Vaclav Havel

By Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) - International leaders bade farewell on Friday to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the anti-communist dissident who led the peaceful "Velvet Revolution" and inspired human rights campaigners around the world.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill, the former president, joined leaders from France, Britain and many ex-communist countries for the funeral mass in the gothic St. Vitus cathedral at Prague Castle, the seat of Czech kings and presidents.

Havel, a dissident playwright who died on Sunday at 75 after a long respiratory illness, served five years in jail for his criticism of oppressive communist rule before rising to the presidency of what was then Czechoslovakia in late 1989.

He stepped down as Czech president in 2003 but remained a symbol of struggle for freedom and human rights, although his proclamation that "truth and love must win over lies and hatred" turned bitter to some Czechs amid economic hardship and corruption in the years after the end of totalitarian rule.

A thousand guests filled the monumental cathedral for the mass, while thousands more followed the service on large screens outside. "He fought against the communists, stuck to his opinion, made big sacrifices," said 14-year old Anezka Chroustova, who brought a bunch of yellow roses.

Sirens and church bells rang around the central European country at noon in Havel's memory. On Wednesday, over 10,000 mourners had marched through Prague's cobblestoned medieval streets, led by Havel's actress wife Dagmar, to pay their respects.

POPE'S TRIBUTE

"Remembering how courageously Mr Havel defended human rights at a time when these were systematically denied to the people of your country, and paying tribute to his visionary leadership...I give thanks to God for the freedom that the people of the Czech Republic now enjoy," Pope Benedict said in a letter read out at Friday's mass.

Havel's dissident friend Lech Walesa, the first post-communist democratic president of Poland, was among the guests. Russia, which Havel criticized for human rights abuses and democratic shortfalls as recently as this month, was represented by rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin.

Bill Clinton's presence was testimony to his close relationship with Havel, who took him to drink beer in a Prague pub and play saxophone in a club when he visited in 1994.

Havel, whose dramas of the absurd were popular in the 1960s before he was banned from public life after the Soviet invasion in 1968, had felt most at home among artists, including the Rolling Stones who played in Prague in 1990 just a few months after the revolution.

A rock concert and a festival of his plays was due to take place later on Friday at the Lucerna Palace that the Havel family built in the early 20th century. Four thousand tickets to the event were snapped up in minutes.

(Writing by Jan Lopatka, Editing by Mark Trevelyan)