Man Who Shot Pope John Paul II Released

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The Turkish man who attempted to kill Pope John Paul in 1981 is free from prison Thursday. Mehmet Ali Agca shot and wounded the pope as he was being driven through St. Peter's Square in an open car. He was granted parole after serving time in Italy and Turkey.


The Turkish man who in 1981 attempted to kill Paul John Paul II walked free today from a prison in Istanbul. Mehmet Ali Agca shot and wounded the pope as he was being driven through St. Peter's Square in an open car. Agca was sentenced to life but was pardoned at the pope's request in 2000 after spending 19 years in an Italian jail. He was then extradited to Turkey and put in jail for other crimes. NPR's Ivan Watson is in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Hello.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: How was Agca's release greeted in Turkey?

WATSON: Well, he emerged from prison wearing a blue sweatshirt. His hair's gone white after more than 25 years in Italian and Turkish jails. And he was still wearing handcuffs. He shook hands with officials and was seated in the back of a white sedan. And as that car pulled out of the prison gates, two men from behind rows of police threw flowers at his vehicle. Agca is a hero to ultranationalist extremist groups here, but his release has been denounced by some newspapers that have questioned why if he's been given a life sentence for crimes committed here in Turkey before the pope's shooting, why has he only served about six years in a Turkish prison?

MONTAGNE: Well, when, again, he shot the pope, he was a fugitive from Turkish justice for those crimes. What was going on there?

WATSON: Agca had served several months in prison in 1979 for the killing of a well-known leftist newspaper editor named Abdi Ipekci. He had also been convicted for robbery and somehow he escaped and, two years later, famously shot the pope in St. Peter's Square. Ipekci's newpaper, Millyet, today printed a front-page headline saying `Day of shame.' Ipekci's daughter has called Agca a national assassin. And we spoke to the Ipekci family lawyer. They say the law has been butchered by this release and they're going to appeal on Monday to the Turkish courts to try to reverse the release. And if that doesn't work, they'll go all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights.

MONTAGNE: Well, what did lead to the decision to release him?

WATSON: There's a lot of confusion here, Renee. I spoke to one Turkish government official who told me, `I really don't understand this.' His death sentence was commuted to life in prison according to a reform passed in 1991. And that life sentence was evidently shortened by another controversial amnesty law passed in 2001 by a previous Turkish government. Officials from that government, former officials, say that there's been some kind of mistake, that Agca shouldn't be released until 2012. We haven't gotten any comments from the judiciary so far, and all of the news of this release has come to quite a surprise to both Turkish government officials and the Turkish media. It just was released, the news of this, the first comment about an early release, this week.

MONTAGNE: What now happens to the man that the world knows as the would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II, Agca? Where is he going? What happens now?

WATSON: Well, he may become a soldier, Renee. He was taken directly to a military recruiting center, and it appears he may have to serve a mandatory military service required of all Turkish men. I have to note he is 48 years old. There have been questions about his sanity, because he's made wild statments over the years, contradicting himeslf on whether he was alone in plotting the pope's assassination. He's claimed to be the messiah. He's even written his own Bible, he says, which he wants to mass reproduce and distribute. Also, there was just a press confernece from the Turkish justice minister. He has said there may have been a mistake in the calculation of Agca's sentence, and he said he would ask the Supreme Court of Turkey to review the case next week and, if need be, he may send Agca back to jail.

MONTAGNE: All those possible choices. NPR's Ivan Watson in Ankara, Turkey.

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