Mourners follow Havel's last journey through Prague

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 21, 2011 5:24 AM
Mourners follow Havel's last journey through Prague

By Robert Mueller

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Vaclav Havel's actress wife led mourners through the streets of Prague Wednesday, following the playwright-president's body on its last public journey, to the castle where it will lie in state until a funeral Friday.

Dagmar Havlova was joined by leading figures from the Czech state and society as well as thousands of the former dissident's fellow citizens wishing to pay tribute to the man who died on Sunday, 22 years after leading the "Velvet Revolution" that ended Communist rule over Czechoslovakia in December 1989.

"This was an honest man," said 67-year-old Jaroslava Leskakova as she marched in the somber cortege behind the hearse through the sunlit cobbled streets of the old city toward the landmark Charles Bridge that leads to Prague Castle.

"He did not think of himself but did all he could for people to be happy," said Leskakova of Havel. He was repeatedly jailed by the Soviet-allied Communist authorities in the 1970s and 80s for his activism in the Charter 77 civil rights movement and then led the nation as president from 1989 to 2003.

Moving from an arts center Havel helped found, where it had lain on view since Monday, to the castle he found himself suddenly thrust into as head of state, Wednesday's journey was symbolic of the transformation in Havel's own life, from censored playwright to a statesman rebuilding eastern Europe.

The final transfer into the castle, where Friday's funeral mass will be held in the presence of dignitaries from around the world, was made on the gun carriage last used for the funeral in 1937 of national hero Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who led Czechoslovakia to independence from the Austrian empire in 1918.

Among those expected at a funeral which will conclude three days of national mourning are U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill, who as president famously played saxophone on a trip to a Prague nightclub with Havel in 1994.

Poland's dissident-turned-president Lech Walesa will be among those attending from a generation who can look back on a moment in history when peaceful protests - and Moscow's loss of will to crush them - ended the Cold War division of the Europe.

Until the end, Havel had continued to support democratic activists around the world. In his last public statement, he had denounced this month's parliamentary election in Russia as rigged and urged Vladimir Putin's opponents to form a shadow government and stand up to "bullying" by the authorities.

(Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)