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Many Important Figures Passed Away in 2006


From Hollywood legends to international despots, the world marked the passing of some colorful and controversial figures in 2006. More on these gone, but not forgotten, people who left their mark on the world.

Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., passed away January 31st. During the 1950s and '60s, Ms. King worked side-by-side with her husband fighting for racial equality. After her husband was assassinated in 1968, Ms. King continued to pursue his dream for equality. She successfully pressed for a U.S. holiday honoring her husband, and established the King Memorial Center in Atlanta to further advance his legacy. Ms. King was 78.

Betty Friedan was also an activist, but for a different segment of the population. Friedan helped launch the modern feminist movement in 1963 with her book, "The Feminine Mystique." In the book, Friedan questioned the role of women in modern society as homemakers exclusively, a role she saw as stifling. Friedan was also co-founder of the National Organization for Women. She died February 4th, on her 85th birthday.

Slobodan Milosevic's lofty position as Serbian leader in the 1980s and '90s was a far cry from his humiliating end. Last March, Milosevic died alone in a cell at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, while being tried for crimes against humanity.

During his turbulent presidency, the communist state of Yugoslavia broke apart. Serbs in Bosnia tried to carve out their own state by forcing out, or killing, the non-Serb population -- what would come to be known as "ethnic cleansing."

It was a tactic Milosevic's troops also applied in Croatia, and later, Kosovo. To his dying day, Milosevic maintained he was only responding to aggressions against his fellow Serbs. Milosevic's trial was still ongoing when he passed away at age 64.

Oleg Cassini was best known for designing clothes for the rich and famous, in particular, some of Hollywood's most glamorous actresses in the 1940s and '50s. Perhaps his most famous client was first lady Jackie Kennedy, wife of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Cassini was 92 when he died March 19th.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a dynamic, elusive insurgent leader operating in Iraq. A Jordanian by birth, his trademark was violence: Bombings, assassinations and beheadings. Zarqawi's brutal tactics helped turn the United States' swift invasion of Iraq in 2003, into a grueling counterinsurgency fight. Despite his death in a U.S. air attack in early June, his legacy continues to be seen in Iraq, in the form of continued bombings, and a widening rift between the Sunnis and Shiites. Zarqawi was 39.

International TV star Steve Irwin's sudden death in early September was shocking and sad. Irwin gained international fame on TV for his death-defying stunts with dangerous animals, especially crocodiles. His life was cut tragically short when he was stung through the heart by a stingray while filming a documentary on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

In Australia, a week-and-a-half after Irwin's death, thousands of Irwin's fans waited in the rain, some overnight, for tickets to his memorial service -- a final testimony to his popularity. Irwin was 44 when he died September 4th.

Former South African President P.W. Botha died at age 90. Botha was head of the white-led National Party government from 1978 to 1989, continuing the apartheid era. During his presidency, South Africa endured some of its worst racial violence and international isolation. South Africa abolished apartheid [government supported racial segregation] in 1993. Five years later, Botha was found guilty of gross human rights violations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel set up under Nelson Mandela's government. Botha escaped prosecution because of his failing health, and he spent his final years in seclusion. Botha passed away October 31st.

U.S. film director Robert Altman developed a filmmaking style in the 1970s that was both distinctive and influential. In movies such as his 1970 anti-war comedy, "MASH," he employed huge ensemble casts and encouraged improvisation and overlapping dialogue. After the mid-1970s, his movies fell out of favor with audiences and critics. But he came back in 1992 with "The Player," a movie business satire. His last movie, "A Prairie Home Companion," was released in May. Altman passed away in November. He was 81.

Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon's Industry Minister, was shot to death in his car November 21st. Gemayel was an anti-Syrian politician and scion of one of Lebanon's most prominent Christian families. He became Industry Minister in 2005, after anti-Syrian factions scored key victories in the elections that year. Gemayel's violent death heightened tensions between pro- and anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon. Some fear these tensions may topple the democratically elected government. Gemayel was 34.

Former Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko died as he lived -- amidst a swirl of controversy and mystery. In the late 1990s, Litvinenko criticized the Russian government; in particular, Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB, headed at the time by current Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Litvinenko was investigating the shooting death of a Russian journalist when he fell ill from radiation poisoning after visiting a hotel bar in London.

Litvinenko died November 23rd from the poisoning, but not before accusing Putin of his murder. Interpol has joined in investigating Litvinenko's death, an investigation that has expanded from Britain, where Litvinenko sought asylum in 2000, to include Russia and Germany. Litvinenko was 43.

News of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's death was met both with tears amongst his supporters who saw him as Chile's savior from Marxism, and celebration by those who suffered under his oppressive rule. After a bloody coup in 1973, Pinochet ruled Chile until 1990. During this time, more than 3,000 people, mostly leftists, either disappeared or were killed for political reasons.

Pinochet's past caught up with him in 1998, when he was detained in Britain, at the request of Spanish judges who sought his extradition for human rights crimes. In 2000, Britain let Pinochet return to Chile for health reasons.

But he never stood trial, after a Chilean court ruled Pinochet physically and mentally unfit. In November, Pinochet released a statement saying he accepted "political responsibility" for everything that happened during his rule. Pinochet was 91 when he died December 10th.