Man who tried to kill Pope John Paul II released

After almost 30 years behind bars, Mehmet Ali Agca provokes questions about his mental health, claiming the end of the world is near.

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ISTANBUL // Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1981, was released from prison in his home country, Turkey, yesterday after spending almost 30 years behind bars, the last 10 for the murder of Abdi Ipekci, the editor of the Milliyet newspaper in 1979.

Mr Agca, who is 52 today, has made contradictory statements about the motives behind his attempt to kill the Pope, thought by Italian investigators to have been the work of eastern European spy agencies, who, alarmed by the Pope's anti-communist stance, used the Turk as a hitman. Mr Agca provoked questions about his mental health during his trial in Italy and did so again yesterday, when he called himself "Christ Eternal" in a handwritten statement and said the end of the world was near, according to Turkish television reports.

Mr Agca did not address the media directly yesterday. News reports said he had gone to a five-star hotel in Ankara. According to unconfirmed reports, he is to give a news conference in Istanbul this week. In the weeks leading up to his release, media reports said Mr Agca was asking for several million dollars for book and film contracts. Haci Ali Ozhan, Mr Agca's lawyer, confirmed there were more than 50 offers for such contracts from around the world. Another lawyer for Mr Agca, Yilmaz Abosoglu, said there were also offers from Hollywood.

Following his release yesterday from a prison in Sincan, near the capital, Ankara, Mr Agca was taken to military authorities who are investigating whether he had to serve in Turkey's army. Dozens of reporters waiting at the prison gate got only a short glimpse of Mr Agca, who was taken away in a civilian police car. After four hours of examination in a military hospital in Ankara, authorities said Mr Agca was unfit to do the 15 months of compulsory military service required of every healthy Turkish man. A medical report in 2006 had concluded that Mr Agca was not fit for military service because of an "advanced degree of antisocial personality disorder".

Mr Ozhan told Turkish reporters his client rejected the idea of military service. "He told me: 'I cannot take a weapon into my hands. It is against my religious beliefs, against my philosophical beliefs'." In an apparent warning of possible attempts on Mr Agca's life, Mr Ozhan also said the safety of his client would be in danger if he had to serve in the armed forces. Agca's whereabouts remained unclear after the examination in Ankara.

Mr Agca shot and wounded the Pope in St Peter's Square in 1981 and spent 19 years in prison in Italy before being pardoned and extradited to Turkey in 2000. He had to stay behind bars in Turkey for a further 10 years for the killing of Ipekci on February 1, 1979, a crime for which he had been sentenced to death by a Turkish court. The sentence was later reduced to a prison term. Mr Agca spent several days in freedom in 2006 after a faulty calculation of his remaining prison time, but was quickly rearrested.

For many Turks, Mr Agca is a living symbol of the dark days of the 1970s, a period that saw daily violent clashes between right-wing and left-wing extremists on the country's streets and that ended with a military coup in 1980. Mr Agca belonged to the "Grey Wolves", a radical nationalist group that is said to have acted with the tacit support of the security forces. After his arrest for the murder of Ipekci, Mr Agca escaped from prison. Media reports said he received help from the "Grey Wolves" and went to neighbouring Bulgaria and then on to Italy, where he shot the Pope on May 13, 1981. The Pope later forgave him.

The possibility of Mr Agca's becoming a rich media star has unsettled parts of the Turkish public. Mr Ozhan said in a statement last week that Mr Agca would take two weeks of holiday after his release before studying the offers for books and films and possibly travelling abroad to sign contracts. wMr Agca also wants to go to Rome and visit the tomb of Pope John Paul II. Mr Agca was "against terrorism and against all kinds of violence", the lawyer said. In his statement yesterday, Mr Agca also said he would write a new gospel for Christianity, as the present one was full of errors. But some observers think Mr Agca is playing a cynical game. "Two weeks from now, we will be remembering Abdi Ipekci, and at the same time we will be reading the memoirs of the killer who is staying in a luxury hotel," Can Dundar, a columnist for Milliyet, wrote yesterday.

Dundar added that, much like the motives for the attack on the pope, the reasons behind Ipekci's assassination remained unknown and that some of those responsible may have risen to high positions in the state after the military coup. "We have made heroes out of killers."