Albania's last communist president;

Born October 18 1925; Died October 7 2011

Ramiz Alia, who has died aged 85 of a pulmonary embolism, was Albania’s last communist president who opened the way for the Balkan country to hold its first free elections in 1991 after a series of massive student protests which brought down one of the world’s most isolationist political systems.

Mr Alia had taken over the leadership of the party in 1985 after the death of his long-time friend, the notorious dictator Enver Hoxha.

In 1994, Mr Alia was convicted of abuse of power and sentenced to nine years in prison, but freed soon after in an amnesty. He was then rearrested pending investigation of new charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

When Albania exploded into chaos in 1997 – after pyramid investment schemes fuelled by the savings of most Albanians collapsed – Mr Alia was among the many prisoners who escaped after guards abandoned their posts.

He was born in 1925 into a poor family in Shkodra, in the north of Albania. While he was a pupil at high school in Tirana he embraced communist ideas and, after Albania had been invaded by Italy in 1939, he became active in the National Liberation Movement as a founder-member of the Communist Youth Section. He joined the Communist Party of Albania (later to be known as the Party of Labour of Albania) in 1943. During the war he helped organise the communist youth wing and in 1944 he progressed on to military responsibilities under Hoxha, who was commander-in-chief of the National Liberation Army. He was elected a member of the central committee of the Party of Labour of Albania at its First Congress in 1948 and served as minister of education and culture from 1955-58.

Alia completely agreed with Hoxha’s uniquely Albanian take on communism and when the old dictator died was his unquestioned successor. But by then Albania had become too isolated for its own good.

He tried to introduce some political and economic reforms to allow greater freedoms in the forlorn hope Albania could remain untainted by the outside world.

But revolution was sweeping the Eastern bloc and the country was hit by strikes and demonstrations. He held on in coalition until 1992 but after introducing elections, he was defeated in a landslide victory in 1992 and resigned as president.

He was then put under house arrest and charged with abuse of power and misappropriation of state funds. He claimed he was the victim of a show trial, but he and his nine co-defendants were found guilty.

Alia was jailed for two years and was released in July 1995 but in 1996 was returned to jail on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. He escaped in 1997 and later that year the charges were dropped.

He was married to Semiramis, who died in 1986, and is survived by two daughters and a son.