24 Dec 2011

State funeral held for Vaclav Havel

6:36 am on 24 December 2011

A state funeral was held in Prague on Friday for former Czech President Vaclav Havel.

World leaders joined Czechs in the cathedral of St Vitus. Thousands thronged outside to follow the service.

There was a long burst of applause as the coffin left the cathedral for a private family funeral.

Mr Havel, 75, who helped lead the 1989 overthrow of communism, died on Sunday after a long respiratory illness that dated to his time in prison.

The Archbishop of Prague read a tribute from Pope Benedict, praising Mr Havel's courageous defence of human rights and his visionary leadership in creating a new democratic system.

Former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright - who was born in Prague - spoke at the ceremony, along with current Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

She said Vaclav Havel had "brought light to the places of deepest darkness".

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, were among mourners.

The presidents of France and Germany also attended, along with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Poland former president Lech Walesa and current leaders from across Eastern Europe.

The BBC reports Mr Havel's ashes will be buried at his family's plot at Vinohrady cemetery in Prague alongside his first wife, Olga, who died in 1996.

Dissident playwright

Vaclav Havel first made his name as a playwright in the 1960s.

The increased freedom brought to Czechoslovakia by the Prague Spring in 1968 allowed him to satirise the communist old guard.

But the Soviet invasion later that year saw his work banned and he was driven underground.

He became Czechoslovakia's most famous dissident and was jailed for "anti-state activity".

But when communism fell in 1989, he went from being a political prisoner to president.