RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
He is a confessed killer, described as diabolical or deluded or both, and yet last week, Turkish authorities unexpectedly released Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981. The move was condemned by the Turkish media which complained that Agca had served only five years in prison for crimes committed in Turkey before his attack on the pope. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul on one of Turkey's most infamous citizens.
IVAN WATSON reporting:
The rest of the world may know Mehmet Ali Agca as the man who shot Pope John Paul II, but here in Turkey, Agca is a Rasputin-like figure remembered for the crimes he committed during one of the bloodiest periods in modern Turkish history.
Mr. SADAT ARAGUN(ph) (Editor in Chief, Milliyet): Mehmet Ali Agca, he symbolizes those dark days, Turkey's history.
WATSON: Sadat Aragun is the editor in chief of the newspaper, Milliyet, which printed a front page banner the day Agca was released that read, "Day of Shame."
Mr. ARAGUN: Before he attempted at the life of the pope, he killed Mr. Ipekci, the editor in chief of my paper. He was caught. He was convicted.
Mr. ANDREW MANGO (Author): It was the, the most notorious murder of a murderous decade in Turkish history.
WATSON: Andrew Mango, the author of several books on Turkish history, says Turkey was already teetering on the edge of civil war when Agca, a young man from the provinces with ties to a violent ultra-nationalist group called the Gray Wolves, was convicted of killing leftist newspaper editor, Abdi Ipekci, in 1979.
Mr. MANGO: I would describe it as (unintelligible) civil war where ideological conflict polarized society, pitting, on one side, socialists and communists, known to their opponents as the "reds," and on the other, nationalists, known to their opponent as "facists."
WATSON: From 1977 to 1980, more than 4,000 people died in an underground war where simply reading the wrong newspaper could get you killed. Columnist Sami Cohen, a close friend and colleague of the slain editor, says Agca's mysterious escape from prison several months after his conviction, fueled suspicion of a larger conspiracy involving politicized elements of the Turkish security services.
Mr. SAMI COHEN (Newspaper Columnist): You don't need to create conspiracy theories if you see that a guy, a prisoner, is able to escape from a heavily protected military jail. It's not something that, you know, Agca himself would do (unintelligible) his own will and initiative.
WATSON: Somehow, the fugitive fled Turkey and spent two years traveling throughout the Middle East and Europe before he shot and wounded the pope in St. Peter's Square. Agca was caught and spent 19 years in an Italian prison before his extradition to Turkey where he was to have served a life sentence for the Ipekci murder. Instead, he spent only five years in a Turkish jail before his surprise release last week. The lawyer for the Ipekci family called it Agca's second jailbreak. Even Turkey's justice minister said there may have been a mistake and ordered the courts to review Agca's case and, if need be, send him back to prison. Publicly, Turkey's hard line nationalist parties tried to distance themselves from the former Gray Wolves member, but some other Turks said Agca had long since paid his debt to society.
(Soundbite of conversations)
WATSON: At this smoky tea shop in a conservative Istanbul neighborhood where locals said they banded together in the '70s to protect themselves from violent leftists, shop owner Abdarahim Oksoi(ph) said it was time to set Agca free.
Mr. ABDARAHIM OKSOI (Shop Owner, Istanbul): (Through Translator) Many criminals from the leftist side, the communists and socialists, will have spent their time in prison but were released, so this guy should also be released because his time has come.
WATSON: Agca's lawyer says his client wants to do what he can to spread freedom and democracy around the world, but friends and family of his victim, Abdi Ipekci, fear Agca will turn his international notoriety into a gold mine. Again, columnist Sami Cohen.
Mr. COHEN: He may get away with it. He may, perhaps, even write his memoirs and become a very wealthy man.
WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.
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