Santiago: Patricio Aylwin, a lanky law professor who played a decisive role in restoring Chile's democracy after 7 years of brutal dictatorship and was later elected president, died on Tuesday. He was 97.
Interior Minister Jorge Burgos said the former president's health had deteriorated in recent days but did not give a cause of death.
Aylwin was at the center stage of Chilean politics for over half a century, and despite being president, senator and seven times head of his centrist Christian Democratic Party he often insisted he didn't see himself as a leader.
Chileans, however, viewed him as a key figure in efforts to prevent the bloody military coup that brought Gen Augusto Pinochet to power and they later elected him as the first president to follow the 1973-90 dictatorship.
President Michelle Bachelet declared three days of national mourning and said Aylwin will receive a state funeral.
"Chile has lost a man who always knew how to place the unity of democrats above their differences, which helped him build a democratic country once he assumed the presidency and in this sense we owe a lot to don Patricio," Bachelet said.
The legacy of his 1990-94 government includes strong economic growth and the continuation of Pinochet's free-market policies, but with more government control "because the market is cruel," as well as his efforts to learn the truth about the human rights violations that bloodied Chile.
Aylwin appointed the independent commission that found that 3,197 people were killed for political reasons under Pinochet. The report opened the way for the first trials of military men for abuses, which years later would reach Pinochet himself.
"I hereby ask for forgiveness from the victims and their relatives in the name of the Chilean state," Aylwin said in a broken voice, with tears in his eyes, as a presented the findings on national television.
Still, when Aylwin stepped down, he said one of his main frustrations was that he had not made greater progress in the human rights field.
Born 26 November, 1918, Aylwin trained as a lawyer. An avowed democrat, he was an opposition leader during 1970-73 government of Salvador Allende, the Western Hemisphere's first freely elected Marxist president.
Despite opposing Allende, he took part in intense, last-minute negotiations for an agreement that sought to prevent the Marxist's overthrow and death on 11 September, 1973, in Pinochet's military coup.