Jiri Dienstbier, a reporter turned dissident who joined playwright Vaclav Havel to help topple one of Eastern Europe’s most repressive regimes, and then served under Havel in Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist government, died Jan. 8 in a Prague hospital of undisclosed causes. He was 73.
In 1989, a wave of protests in Czechoslovakia forced the Communist Party to give up its monopoly on power. A new noncommunist coalition government was formed, and Mr. Dienstbier, who had been jailed for his anti-communist activism, became Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister.
Havel, a lead agitator for the observance of human rights during the dying years of communist power in Eastern Europe, became president.
Mr. Dienstbier said at the time that after more than 40 years of communist rule, Czechoslovakia — the predecessor state to the present-day nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia — would become “a force for stability” and “a main center promoting European unity.”
Not long after he became foreign minister, Mr. Dienstbier and his counterparts in Germany and Austria were photographed snipping through barbed-wire fences that had separated Czechoslovakia from those countries during the Cold War.
Born April 20, 1937, Mr. Dienstbier became a member of the Communist Party in 1958 and worked as a foreign correspondent for Czechoslovak radio in the United States, Western Europe and Asia.
After Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, Mr. Dienstbier refused to sign a declaration that the invasion was necessary. Expelled from the party, he did a series of menial jobs, including stoking a boiler at a central heating plant serving residential buildings.
“You know, I sort of like my job,” he once said. “I don’t work too hard, and I get four days a week off for my real work.”
That real work was activism against the communist government.
Mr. Dienstbier was among the first to sign the Charter 77 human rights manifesto inspired by dissident playwright Havel. The former broadcaster wrote and edited illegal monthly newsletters promoting Charter 77 ideals.
He was imprisoned from 1979 to 1982 for his opposition work. He later was a spokesman for the opposition group Civic Forum, which was instrumental in organizing demonstrations that led to the peaceful overthrow of communist rule in late 1989.
Havel, who spent time in prison with Mr. Dienstbier, remembered him Saturday for his unbending spirit.
“Even in the toughest moments, his good humor was a great encouragement for us all the time,” Havel said.
Mr. Dienstbier was among 50 World Press Freedom Heroes honored by the International Press Institute at its World Congress in Boston in 2000.
From 1998 to 2001, he served as special rapporteur for the U.N. Human Rights Commission in the former Yugoslavia.
As a visiting professor of foreign relations and politics, he lectured at a number of universities worldwide, including Claremont Graduate School in California, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brown University in Rhode Island and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Mr. Dienstbier returned to Czech politics in 2008, when he became a lawmaker in the Czech Senate as an independent candidate with support of the leftist Social Democrats. His term was to expire in 2014.
Survivors include his wife, Jirina, a son and two daughters.
Washington Post staff writer Emma Brown contributed to this report.