The former dissident playwright who became leader of Czechoslovakia's 'velvet revolution' in 1989 and thereafter President first of Czechoslovakia, then (from 1993) of the Czech Republic.
Born on 5 October 1936 in Prague, he was initially denied a university place under the post-war communist regime because he had a bourgeois family background. A career in the theatre in the 1960s, and increasingly as a successful play-wright with an international reputation, ensured him a high profile as an enthusiastic supporter of new ideas of liberal communism in the so-called 'Prague Spring' of 1968. Havel chaired the Circle of Independent Writers, and was a fierce opponent of the invasion by Warsaw Pact forces that August. The subsequent period of repression saw his work banned in Czechoslovakia, although it circulated as samizdat (illegal 'self-published' manuscripts) and was published in the West. As spokesperson for a small group of dissident intellectuals, he was a founding signatory on 1 January 1977 of what became the rallying call of the human rights movement, Charter 77. He spent four years in prison from 1979 to 1983 on a charge of sedition, and in January 1989 was again arrested, with a group of human rights demonstrators, and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment for incitement and obstruction. This aroused a major international protest, which embarrassed the regime into releasing him in May.
The astonishingly rapid collapse of communist rule in late 1989 propelled Havel into a national leadership role. Heading the Civic Forum which he helped set up in November, he was at the forefront of the protest movement and the massive popular demonstrations which swept the old regime from power. On 29 December he was elected by the legislature as interim President, pending the holding of general elections the following June. The new Federal Assembly, meeting on 5 July 1990, then confirmed him in office for two years. During this period his relations with Slovak nationalist leader Vladimír Mečiar were often difficult, while it was common knowledge that he differed with the Finance Minister and later Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus over the speed and uncompromising radicalism of the switchover to a free-market economy.