Outrage in Turkey over Early Release of Pope’s Assailant

ISTANBUL (AFP)–The early release of Mehmet Ali Agca–the Turk who shot pope John Paul II–triggered outrage in Turkey–where many see the Aga as a living reminder of the country’s turbulent past marred by political murders.

Questions over the legality of his liberation arose only hours after the 48-year-old walked out of a high-security prison in Istanbul on Thursday after spending nearly 25 years behind bars in Italy and his home country.

While Agca is best known in the rest of the world for his 1981 assassination attempt on the pope in Rome–his notoriety in Turkey stems from the politically charged murder in 1979 of Abdi Ipekci–the popular editor and chief columnist for the liberal daily Milliyet.

Commemorating the loss of a colleague–Turkish newspapers were united yesterday in condemning Agca’s release and expressing shame at one of the country’s most notorious killers being free.

"And the murderer is among us," blared the liberal daily Radikal–while Milliyet said: "Shame on Turkey."

Many newspapers were horrified by the hero’s welcome laid out by Agca’s far-right supporters–who whisked him around Istanbul in a luxury sedan and threw flowers on the vehicle in demonstrations of joy.

"Step into the Mercedes–Honourable Mr. Murderer," the mass-circulation Hurriyet blared–adding: "Day of shame."

A column in the popular Vatan suggested ironically that now that he had been released despite his violent criminal record–Agca might just as well be allowed to enter parliament.

"He (Agca) was released early. Why? Is there a new journalist to be shot?" the paper asked.

Hurriyet charged that Agca’s release was "a serious blow to Turkey’s struggle against terrorism," while a non-governmental journalists’ group described Agca as a "hitman for the creators of organized terror in one of Turkey’s darkest periods."

"His release amounts to rewarding the guilty and punishing the victims," Ahmat Abakay–the head of the Association of Contemporary Reporters–said in a written statement.

Agca was a member of the far-right Grey Wolves movement during the troubled late 1970s–when left- and right-wing extremists gunned each other down in the streets and leading intellectuals became victims of unsolved murders in an atmosphere resembling civil war.

The period led to a military coup in 1980–the third and last military intervention in the history of the 82-year-old Turkish Republic.

The debate in Turkey came amid legal confusion about whether Agca’s release was legally sound.

Only hours after Agca was set free–Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said that he would order a review of the release as jurists disagreed whether he had served his full time.

Cicek warned that Agca could return to jail if an error had been made in calculating his sentence reductions.

Agca served 19 years in Italian prisons for the attack on the pope before he was pardoned by the Italian president and extradited to Turkey in 2000.

He was jailed in Istanbul for the Ipekci murder and two bank robberies committed in the 1970s.

Agca would have served 36 years for the robberies and 10 years–reduced from an initial death sentence–for the Ipekci assassination.

He was freed after less than six years thanks to reductions that accompanied amnesty laws and European Union-inspired reforms to the Turkish penal code that cut prison terms for the crimes he had committed.

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