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After 30 Years, Man Who Tried To Kill Pope Freed From Turkish Jail


Mehmet Ali Agca (left) is released from prison in Ankara today.

Mehmet Ali Agca (left) is released from prison in Ankara today.

(RFE/RL) -- Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish man who shot and seriously wounded Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's square in Rome nearly 30 years ago, has been released from a high-security jail near the Turkish capital, Ankara.

Agca, now 52 years old, has promised to tell journalists more about the case next week.

During the long years of Agca’s imprisonment, no clear motive for the attack on the Polish-born pontiff has ever emerged.

It was May 13, 1981, when Pope John Paul II appeared on St. Peter’s Square in Rome aboard an open jeep. The vehicle stopped amid the crowd and the white-robed pope picked up a little girl from her parents. He had just handed her back when a hand emerged from the crowd holding a high-powered Browning automatic pistol.

Shots rang out, and the pope slumped sideways into the jeep, with two bullets in his intestines, and a damaged left hand and right arm.

Agca -- then 23 years old, a thin, slightly-built young man with a piercing gaze -- was hindered from further shooting by a brave nun who grabbed him. Unable to escape in the dense crowd, he was soon taken into custody by security staff.

Agca had been involved in far-right organizations and had a history of violent crime, despite his young age. But his motive was unclear, and has remained so for decades.

Agca said at his trial in Italy that he was acting under the operational command of the Bulgarian military attache in Rome, Zilo Vassilev.

Thus he directly implicated the communist world in the attempted assassination of a Polish pontiff who was a symbol of freedom and resistance to Marxism in the whole of Eastern Europe -- especially to his volatile Polish countrymen.

Lech Walesa's Polish Solidarity free trade union was formed only eight months before the papal assassination attempt, and history shows that Moscow was right to fear the contemporary presence of a Polish pope in Rome, as Solidarity and John Paul became the wedge which shattered European communism.

But Agca's links to the Bulgarian secret service, let alone to the Soviet KGB, were never proven, and the trail petered out without anything being established. Other theories arose, including that the West had ordered the killing so that it could blame Moscow.

They were even less substantiated, and when Agca began to make outlandish claims, such as that he was the Messiah, he rapidly lost credibility. Through the long years of jail, his file lay closed.

Sentence Served

Agca’s lawyer, Gokay Gultekin, told Reuters in Ankara that there is no need to fear his release.

"He served his sentence,” Gultekin said. “There is no problem with the judicial system. He was in jail for 19 years and 11 months in Italy over the Pope's assassination attempt, and 10 years in Turkey because of the events here. And now he is going to be free. There is no logic in showing any reaction against his freedom."

Agca left the prison compound in a four-car convoy, obscured behind tinted glass windows, although he waved at journalists as he got into one of the vehicles inside the compound.

One of his lawyers said Agca was being taken to a military installation for medical tests to determine whether, as a draft dodger, he should now do military service.

"There is a good possibility the Defense Ministry's health management will approve the new report from the military hospital, and he will not join the army,” the attorney said. “But the opposite may happen, and if they find him healthy, he will join the army."

Whatever Agca eventually purportedly reveals about the mysterious case almost 30 years ago, it is likely to raise more questions than it provides answers.

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