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Vaclav Havel's body lies in state at Prague Castle

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
updated 6:58 AM EST, Thu December 22, 2011
Crowds watch as the coffin of former President Vaclav Havel is brought to Prague Castle ahead of his state funeral.
Crowds watch as the coffin of former President Vaclav Havel is brought to Prague Castle ahead of his state funeral.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Admirers line Charles Bridge as the late dissident's body is moved
  • Havel died Sunday at the age of 75
  • His writing and activism helped overthrow Communism in Czechoslovakia
  • He will be buried in a state funeral Friday

(CNN) -- Admirers of the late Czech President Vaclav Havel lined Prague's famous Charles Bridge Wednesday as his coffin was moved to Prague Castle ahead of his state funeral Friday.

Havel, who helped bring down communism in Czechoslovakia's 1989 Velvet Revolution, died Sunday, aged 75.

A fiercely independent thinker with a wry, playful sense of humor, Havel became president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Moscow-backed regime, and the first president of the Czech Republic when it split peacefully from Slovakia three years later.

The long-time chain smoker, whose health was permanently damaged by time in prison under the Communists, died peacefully in his sleep Sunday, his spokeswoman Sabina Tancevova said.

People poured into the streets of Prague with candles and flowers in memory of him that night.

His longtime friend and translator Paul Wilson remembered Havel as "a very shy and gentle man with a will of steel, who was fearless when confronting a regime that tried, relentlessly, to crush his spirit."

Havel, hero of Czech anti-communism dies

Havel, an absurdist playwright turned political activist, spent four and a half years in prison for opposing Czechslovakia's Communist government before emerging as a leader of the Velvet Revolution.

A deeply serious thinker given to long, rambling statements in presidential speeches and conversation, Havel also had an impish sense of humor, reportedly whizzing through the long corridors of Prague Castle on a scooter after becoming president.

A perennial contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, Havel never won, but he remained active in anti-communist causes from Cuba to China until his death.

He urged Chinese authorities to release dissident Liu Xiaobo, whose Charter 08 call for greater political freedom in China was inspired by Czechoslovakia's Charter 77.

Havel and other Czech dissidents attempted to deliver a letter to the Chinese Embassy in January 2010, before Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize, but they found the doors closed and no one to receive it.

It was an absurd scene that could have come out of one of the plays he wrote in the 1960s, poking fun at the Soviet-backed authorities who ruled his country at the time.

Theater proved a potent weapon against Czechoslovakia's Communist rulers, who stepped down without a shot being fired in the weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the defeat of the region's authoritarian Moscow-backed regimes.

Havel was unanimously elected president by the last Communist-run parliament of Czechoslovakia 22 years ago this month.

His country joined NATO and the European Union under his stewardship, but he lost out on many of the major domestic political battles of his presidency, including his effort to keep Czechoslovakia together.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he was "was inspired by his words and leadership. ... Vaclav Havel was a friend to America and to all who strive for freedom and dignity, and his words will echo through the ages."

But speaking to to CNN's Jim Clancy in March, Havel expressed more modest wishes for how history would remember him.

"I would be glad if it was felt that I have done something generally useful," he said. "I don't care much about personal fame or popularity. I would be satisfied with the feeling that I had a chance to help with something in general, something good. That history gave me that chance."

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