Reuters International

Italian radical party leader Marco Pannella shouts at senators as they start to vote at the Senate for the new speaker in Rome April 28, 2006. REUTERS/Max Rossi

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ROME (Reuters) - Marco Pannella, veteran politician and civil rights campaigner who was best known for his role in the legalisation of divorce and abortion in Italy, has died aged 86, his Radical Party said on Thursday.

With his burly frame, shock of white hair and famously verbose speaking style, Pannella was one of Italy's most prominent political figures from the 1960s to the 1990s, despite never having served in government.

Always hard to place on the traditional left-right ideological spectrum, Pannella was a founder of Italy's Radical Party in 1955 and rose to fame as the movement's leader in the 1960s and 1970s.

He promoted dozens of referendums on subjects including abortion, the legalisation of cannabis, the abolition of life imprisonment and hunting. He was also at the forefront of successful campaigns such as the end of pure proportional representation in elections in the early 1990s and the abolition of nuclear energy production in Italy in 2011.

His unconventional protests constantly kept him in the limelight and he staged many hunger strikes, including one in 2011, at the age of 81, that lasted three months to protest against prison overcrowding.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told reporters the whole country was moved by the death of "a courageous lion of freedom".

Pannella's international profile jumped when he recruited porn actress Ilona Staller (known by her stage name of Cicciolina) into the Radical Party in the 1980s and she was successfully elected to parliament in 1987.

During his long political career, Pannella formed alliances on the left and right, a versatility hailed as "post-ideological" by his supporters but which his detractors considered a sign of cynicism and opportunism.

In the 1994 and 1996 elections he backed centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, while in 2006 he was part of the centre-left coalition led by Romano Prodi.

He was a member of parliament on-and-off between 1976 and 1992 and was elected four times to the European Parliament between 1979 and 2004.

Pannella was a lifelong chain smoker and in recent years he suffered numerous health problems, including lung cancer.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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