- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

ISTANBUL — The man who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 was released from prison yesterday after serving more than 25 years in Italy and Turkey for the plot against the pontiff and the slaying of a Turkish journalist.

To the cheers of nationalist supporters, a white sedan whisked Mehmet Ali Agca — whose attempt to assassinate the pope gained notoriety for himself and shame for his homeland — through the gates of the high-security Kartal Prison as dozens of police officers stood guard. His supporters showered the car with red and yellow flowers.

But Turkey’s Justice Minister Cemil Cicek later said authorities will review Agca’s release to make sure there were no errors in the handling of the complicated case. He said Agca’s release was not “a guaranteed right.”

Agca, 48, wearing a blue sweater and jeans, was freed five years after he was pardoned by Italy and extradited to Turkey. He had served 20 years in prison in Italy, where John Paul forgave him in a visit to his cell in 1983.

“We are happy. We endlessly thank the Turkish state,” said his brother, Adnan.

He said one of the first things Agca wanted to do was order a typical Turkish meal of beans and rice at a restaurant overlooking the Bosporus, the narrow waterway that bisects Istanbul and joins the European and Asian continents.

Immediately after his release, Agca reported to a military recruitment center and a hospital, both routine procedures, said his lawyer, Mustafa Demirbag.

Agca shot the pope as he rode in an open car in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on May 13, 1981, and was captured immediately afterward. John Paul was hit in the abdomen, left hand and right arm but recovered because the bullets missed vital organs. Two years after the shooting, the pope met with Agca in prison and forgave him.

His release passed with little notice at the Vatican. The official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano ignored the news and Pope Benedict XVI made no public mention of it.

After Agca was extradited back to Turkey, he was convicted for the killing of a left-wing columnist, Abdi Ipekci, in 1979. A court last week decided to release him on parole based on credit for time served and recent Turkish penal reforms, Mr. Demirbag said.

Many Turks expressed surprise and outrage at the court’s ruling.

“Agca is not just the murderer of my father. … I see him as our national assassin,” Mr. Ipekci’s daughter, Nukhet, said Wednesday in a letter on the front page of her father’s former newspaper, Milliyet.

But hundreds of Agca’s supporters came to Istanbul to celebrate his release.

“He is a family friend. We love him,” said Mustafa Akmercan, one of two Turks who hijacked an Air Malta jetliner in 1997 to demand Agca’s release.

Agca, known in the past for claims he was the Messiah, had met briefly with a psychiatrist who declared him sane enough to stand trial for shooting the pope.

A draft dodger who also escaped from a military prison in 1979, he faces the possibility of being enlisted in the army if he is pronounced fit to serve — although the military generally accepts conscripts under age 41.

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