Pope Assassin Granted Clemency

ROME (Reuters)–Italy granted clemency on Tuesday to Mehmet Ali Agca–the enigmatic Turkish gunman who served 19 years in jail for shooting Pope John Paul in 1981–and said he would be extradited to his native Turkey.

The Vatican said the Pope–who had insisted Italy free his would-be killer–was very pleased about the decision.

"This morning the president of the republic signed the clemency decree for Mehmet Ali Agca and simultaneously the justice minister signed an extradition decree which will send him back to Turkey," a spokesman for Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi told Reuters.

The spokesman’said he did not know when Agca–who had been serving a life sentence–would be sent back to Turkey–where he will have to serve out the remaining part of a sentence for the killing of a journalist in 1978.

Unconfirmed reports said Agca could be on his way by plane to Rome on Tuesday evening before leaving immediately for Turkey.

The Pope publicly forgave Agca shortly after the shooting in St. Peter’s Square on May 13–1981–and repeated his pardon several times–once during a moving visit to Agca’s prison cell.

"For me this is really a dream come true," Italian news agency ANSA quoted Agca as telling lawyer Marina Magistrelli. "Today–he is the happiest man in the world," she added.

Agca has asked for a pardon many times but the Vatican said it was a matter for the Italian government to decide.

"There is satisfaction on the part of the Holy See and the Pope," chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told Reuters. "As you know–John Paul II immediately pardoned his attacker and for some time now the Pope had told Italian authorities that he was in favour of an act of clemency if Italian law permitted it."

"He (the Pope) has been insisting on this for some time. We are not surprised. We are very happy," the spokesman’said.

He added that that "the Pope’s satisfaction was even greater" because the clemency came during the Catholic Church’s Holy Year–the theme of which is pardon and forgiveness.

Under the Italian constitution anyone who tries to assassinate a Pope must be punished by an automatic life sentence and can get out early only with a presidential pardon.

"Ali Agca will carry out the sentences imposed on him for crimes committed in Turkey," the Justice Ministry said.

Agca–once a member of the right-wing Gray Wolves terrorist group–still has to serve about eight years in Turkey for the killing of journalist Abdi Ipekci.

The Pope almost died from wounds to his abdomen but doctors saved his life–mainly because the bullets missed vital organs.

The question over who might have been really behind the assassination attempt remains an enduring mystery.

At the time of the shooting–events in the Pope’s Polish homeland were starting a domino effect which was to lead to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.

The Pope was a staunch supporter of Poland’s Solidarity union and most historians agree that he had a vital role in events that led to the formation of the East Bloc’s first freely elected government and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Agca was arrested in St. Peter’s Square minutes after the shooting and a court sentenced him to life imprisonment two months later.

At a 1986 trial–prosecutors failed to prove charges that Bulgarian secret services had hired Agca to kill the Pope on behalf of the Soviet Union.

The so-called "Bulgarian Connection" trial ended with an "acquittal for lack of sufficient evidence" of three Turks and three Bulgarians charged with conspiring along with Agca.

But the verdict–a quirk of the Italian judicial system–fell short of a full acquittal. It meant the jury was not fully convinced of the defendants’ innocence but that there was not enough evidence for a guilty verdict.

"There still is a big question mark surrounding the attempt to kill the Pope with regard to the organizers of the plot," Antonio Marini–a prosecutor at the "Bulgarian Connection" trial–said after hearing of the clemency.

"I am sure that Agca did not tell the whole truth…Agca did everything to stop us from reaching the truth–pretending he was crazy during the trial and discrediting himself," Marini said.

The granting of clemency came exactly one month after the Vatican revealed one of its most closely guarded secrets it said was received by three Portuguese shepherd children during apparitions by the Virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917.

The secret foretold the attempt on his life. The Pope has long believed the Virgin of Fatima saved his life.

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