PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

- Vaclav Havel rose from a difficult life as a dissident playwright hounded by secret police to a symbol of freedom and political champion of Czechoslovakia's 1989 Velvet Revolution.

He went on to become president of the Czech Republic and was embraced worldwide as a liberation statesman.

He died of respiratory disease at 75 yesterday.

A talented playwright for three decades before his first election as president in 1990, he had helped rally dissident intellectuals behind the nonviolent overthrow of Czechoslovakia's 41-year-old Communist government.

The revolution freed Czechs and Slovaks from the grip of the Soviet empire, lifting Havel to a new role.

It was a stunning reversal in fortunes for the former brewery worker, who spent time in prison for promoting democratic ideas.

In 1993 Havel oversaw Czechoslovakia's peaceful split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and then helped ease 10 million Czechs toward the West by welcoming foreign investment, joining NATO and paving the way for European Union membership.

Havel was born in Prague in 1936, the son of a prominent restaurant owner. The family property was confiscated after the communists came to power in 1948.

Under communism, Havel faced discrimination because of his "bourgeois" family. After secondary school he worked as a cabdriver, and then as an assistant in a chemical laboratory.

Eventually he made it into theater. He was hired in 1960 at the Balustrade Theatre in Prague as a stagehand and later worked as a script editor.

His 1963 play "The Garden Party" earned him worldwide attention but put him on the government blacklist. He married fellow dissident Olga Splichalova, in 1964.

During the Prague Spring reform movement, which ended with the 1968 Soviet invasion, Havel became chairman of the free-speech Circle of Independent Writers.

The next year, his writing was banned and he moved from Prague to a rural town. Havel got a job in a brewery but continued writing.

In 1979, he was arrested and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in jail for founding the illegal Committee for the Defense of Those Prosecuted Unjustly. More jail terms and constant surveillance followed through the 1980s.

He was released for the last time in May 1989, six months before street demonstrations in Prague led to the communist downfall.

In 1996, Havel's wife died. The next year, he married a longtime friend, actress Dagmar Veskrnova.

He retired from politics in 2003 and in 2008, Havel returned to the stage - for the first time in 20 years - with "Leaving," a play about a fallen politician that he began writing in 1989.