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Man Who Shot Pope Is Pardoned in Italy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who wounded Pope John Paul II in a 1981 assassination attempt with still-mysterious motives, was pardoned Tuesday by Italy’s president and sent home to Turkey to finish a prison term there for an unrelated murder.

The surprise move did nothing to shed light on the lingering question of whether Agca acted alone. But it satisfied a Vatican request for his pardon, dramatizing John Paul’s effort to make this Roman Catholic Holy Year a special time for seeking and granting forgiveness for wrongs.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that the pope, who visited and forgave his would-be killer in 1983, voiced “personal satisfaction” Tuesday that Agca’s life sentence had been shortened.

The 42-year-old Turk, white-haired after 19 years behind bars in Italy, was taken late Tuesday from a prison in the town of Ancona, just hours after President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi signed a decree of clemency and Justice Minister Piero Fassino ordered his extradition.

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“It’s a dream,” the prisoner’s lawyer quoted Agca as saying amid effusive thanks to the pope, the Vatican and Italy.

Under secret arrangements worked out between Italy and Turkey in London last week, Turkish law enforcement officials escorted Agca on a special flight from Ancona. He landed in Istanbul early today and was whisked to a high-security prison.

Agca’s departure from Italy came two years after Italian investigators, frustrated by his wildly conflicting testimony, closed an inconclusive probe into whether the Turk was a lone gunman or part of a plot by the Soviet KGB to kill the anti-Communist Polish pope.

A veteran of terrorist training in Syria and a member of the military wing of Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Action Party, Agca once sent a letter to a Turkish newspaper threatening on behalf of “sister Islamic peoples” to kill the Roman Catholic leader during a 1979 visit to Turkey.

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He got nowhere near John Paul then but turned up in St. Peter’s Square with a 9-millimeter pistol on May 13, 1981.

He fired at close range, hitting John Paul in the stomach, left hand and right arm as the pope rode in an open car through a crowd of 20,000 people. One bullet shattered the victim’s colon, a wound that doctors say permanently weakened the then-athletic pontiff.

Arrested at the scene, Agca confessed to the shooting, insisting that he had acted alone.

Less than a year after his July 1981 conviction, however, he changed his story, turning the case into a mystery comparable to that of President Kennedy’s assassination, both in the wealth of theories and in the absence of answers.

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His spectacular assertions about international terrorist conspiracies led to the arrest of three Bulgarians and four other Turks on charges of complicity in the shooting of the pope. But Italy’s effort to prove a Soviet-inspired plot collapsed at the trial as Agca contradicted himself, saying some of his testimony had been lies and claiming at one point to be Jesus Christ.

The trial ended in acquittal in 1986, but Italian prosecutors kept the case open for 12 more years.

Over the years, the pope has dwelt more on what he calls divine intervention in the assassination attempt. He credits the Virgin Mary with deflecting the bullets and saving his life. And a month ago, on the 19th anniversary of the shooting, the Vatican asserted that the mother of Christ had foretold the attack in a 1917 revelation to three shepherd children at Fatima, Portugal.

Agca has picked up on this theme in a series of recent statements from prison while returning to the story that he acted alone. “We simply have cameo roles in the mysterious project of God, who is eternal and omnipotent,” he told one interviewer late last month.

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Rosario Priore, Italy’s leading investigator in the Agca case, said Tuesday that he had long given up trying to get more out of the Turk and saw no reason not to let him go. “You can’t keep people in prison just to make them talk,” he said.

Agca apparently left prison a different man from the extremist who entered 19 years ago. He tried to kill himself shortly after his arrest and spent 10 years in solitary confinement. Later, he dedicated himself to the study of psychology and became a model prisoner. He grew to admire the man he tried to kill.

Agca still must pay for his part in the February 1979 murder of Abdi Ipekci, a prominent leftist newspaper editor whose cousin is now Turkey’s foreign minister.

Sentenced to death, Agca escaped from a Turkish prison later that year. The sentence was later commuted in a general amnesty to 10 years’ imprisonment. Turkish officials said he must now serve that time--minus the 158 days he was behind bars before escaping.

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Staff writer Boudreaux reported from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and special correspondent De Cristofaro from Rome. Special correspondent Amberin Zaman in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.


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