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Well-known Czech Senator Jiří Dienstbier - Czechoslovakia’s first post-1989 foreign minister and former dissident and journalist – has died. Mr Dienstbier was 73 and had been hospitalised at Vinohrady hospital after suffering from a long illness. Social Democrats (for whom he ran as an independent) learning of his death on Saturday, held a minute of silence for him at a regional conference; acting party leader Bohuslav Sobotka said Mr Dienstbier’s death represented a loss not only for Social Democrats but for all of Czech society.

The current foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, reacted to the news by saying Mr Dienstbier had been a personal friend, calling him one of the most important figures following 1989.

Former Czech president Václav Havel said he had lost a friend who had helped him and given him strength during his imprisonment by Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime. He said they had experienced much together; he added that while he suspected Mr Dienstbier was ill after meeting him not long ago, he was shocked by the sudden turn of events.

It was Mr Dienstbier who 22 years ago, along with his West German counterpart Hans-Dietrich Genscher, symbolically cut barbed wire that had been part of the Iron Curtain near the border crossing at Rozvadov/Waidhaus. Between 1998 and 2001, he served as the UN’s United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in the former Yugoslavia and opposed the NATO bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. In the Senate he represented Kladno and was to have served until 2014.

Earlier in his career, Jiří Dienstbier studied journalism and worked for Czechoslovak Radio, serving as foreign correspondent in Asia, Europe and the United States. Although he had joined the Communist Party in the 1950s, he took part in the Prague Spring and opposed the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a result he was thrown out of the party and dismissed from his job. In 1977, he was one of the signatories of Charter 77 and was twice spokesman for the human rights movement. As a dissident he helped published illegal writing known as samizdat, which landed him a three-year prison sentence. After his release in the 1980s, he could only gain work as a manual labourer.