Pope's would-be assassin to go free

In this photo from Vatican files, Pope John Paul II converses with his would-be assassin, Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca, in Agca's prison cell in Rome on Dec. 27, 1983.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 9, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 10:47 p.m.
ANKARA, Turkey - The man who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 will be released from a Turkish prison as soon as today after completing his sentence for crimes committed in his homeland, a news agency reported Sunday.
Mehmet Ali Agca was extradited to Turkey in 2000 after serving almost 20 years in Italy for shooting and wounding the pope in St. Peter's Square in Rome. His motive for shooting John Paul in the abdomen on May 13, 1981, remains unclear.
Agca, 47, was expected to be released as early as today, the semiofficial Anatolia news agency reported Sunday. He was expected to be immediately enlisted by the military for obligatory service because he had dodged the draft, Anatolia said.
Turkish paramilitary police were expected to take Agca first to a local military station and then to a military hospital in Istanbul for a medical check, a routine procedure.
His lawyer and family said they were unaware of the court decision.
''I'm surprised,'' his lawyer, Dogan Yildirim, told The Associated Press. ''If it's true, justice will finally be served. He has been in prison for so long.''
Agca's sister, Fatma Agca, also was surprised.
''We did not hear it,'' Fatma Agca told the AP from the family home in the southeastern city of Malatya.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican would defer to the judgment of the Turkish tribunal.
''The Holy See has learned only from news agencies of the news of the possible freedom of Ali Agca,'' he said in a brief statement. ''The Holy See, before a problem of a judicial nature, submits to the decisions of the tribunals involved in this matter.''
In one of the most famous moments of his papacy, John Paul personally pardoned Agca 2 years after the attack, sitting face-to-face and almost touching knees with his attacker during a 21-minute private meeting in a prison cell in Rome. John Paul called his prison visit ''a historic day in my life as a man, a Christian, as a bishop and bishop of Rome.''
''The Lord gave us the grace to be able to meet each other as men and as brothers,'' the pope said.
Reporters were barred but a Vatican film showed that Agca bent and kissed the pope's ring at the start of the meeting and shook his hand after they sat down.
The pope also had pardoned Agca from his hospital bed five days after the shooting.
Upon his return to Turkey from Italy, Agca immediately was sent to prison to serve a 10-year sentence for murdering Turkish journalist Abdi Ipekci in 1979. He was separately sentenced to seven years and four months for two robberies in Turkey the same year.
An Istanbul court ruled in 2004 that Agca should only serve the longest sentence - his conviction for killing Ipekci. That 10-year sentence was changed twice because of new Turkish laws.
Yildirim had pressed for Agca's early release in 2004, calculating that he could be released as early as December 2005 under the new laws. The court did not respond.
Agca served less than six months in Turkish prison in 1979 for killing Ipekci before he escaped, resurfacing in 1981 in Rome.
Given that earlier time served, the prison asked a court for permission to release Agca. The court ruled that Agca could now be freed this week, Anatolia said.
Agca reportedly identified with the Gray Wolves, a far right-wing militant group that fought street battles against leftists in the 1970s. He first confessed to killing Ipekci, one of the country's most prominent left-wing newspaper columnists, but later retracted his statements.
In a March interview with the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, Agca made contradictory remarks about his attempt on John Paul's life. He initially said Vatican prelates helped him carry out the shooting, adding: ''The devil is within the Vatican.''
He then reportedly said in the same interview that ''nobody in the world knew of my attempt.''
There has been speculation that agents from Bulgaria helped plot the assassination attempt because of that country's ties with the Soviet KGB, which reportedly was alarmed by the pope's support for the Solidarity trade union in Poland.
In 2002, however, John Paul sought to lay the issue to rest, declaring he never believed there was a Bulgarian connection to Agca.
Three Bulgarians suspected of complicity in the shooting were acquitted by an Italian court because of a lack of evidence.
But in his book, ''Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums,'' John Paul said Agca had been maneuvered by another party.
''Ali Agca, as everyone says, is a professional assassin. The shooting was not his initiative, someone else planned it, someone else commissioned him,'' the pope wrote.

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