Would-Be Pope Assassin Said to be Reformed

The gunman who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II is sane and wants to work for democracy around the world after his impending release from prison, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Mehmet Ali Agca is relishing the prospect of freedom when he is released on parole Thursday after some 25 years in prison, attorney Mustafa Demirbag said in an interview.

"He says, 'I want to extend the hand of peace and friendship to everyone. I want to engage a struggle for democracy and culture,"' Demirbag said.

The lawyer said hundreds of nationalists were heading to Istanbul to welcome Agca, 48, who was among far right-wing militants who fought leftists in street battles in the 1970s.

"We've received several calls and hundreds of e-mails supporting him and saying justice is finally served," Demirbag said. "Hundreds of people, even some from abroad, are on their way to Istanbul in buses and cars. They are from every segment of the society but mostly nationalists."

Agca shot the pope on May 13, 1981, as the pontiff rode in an open car in St. Peter's Square in Rome. The bullets hit John Paul in the abdomen, left hand and right arm but missed vital organs.

Agca was captured immediately. His motive remains unclear.

The pontiff forgave Agca and Italy pardoned him five years ago, extraditing him to Turkey to face charges including the killing of a left-wing columnist, Abdi Ipekci, in 1979.

A court last week said it had decided to release Agca after he had served 4 1/2 years in prison. Agca received credit for time served, and an earlier-than-expected release under recent Turkish penal reforms, Demirbag said.

Ipekci's family expressed outrage.

"Agca is not just the murderer of my father, Abdi Ipekci. I see him as our national assassin," his daughter, Nukhet Ipekci, said Wednesday in a letter on the front page of her father's former newspaper, Milliyet.

Agca, known for frequent outbursts and claims that he was the Messiah, met briefly with a psychiatrist who declared him sane enough to stand trial for shooting the pope, but has never undergone a thorough psychological test.

"I think Agca is sane but of course, the doctors would decide on that," Demirbag said.

Demirbag said Agca watched television, read newspapers and exercised for a few hours every day while in solitary confinement.

"He is a kind of man who has never lost contact with the outside world," Demirbag said.

Many in Turkey were upset by the prospect of Agca going free.

"A murderer like him who has stained Turkey's image should not be released," said Deniz Ergin, a 23-year-old university student.

Agca also dodged Turkey's draft, escaping a military prison in 1979. He could now have to serve, but the military generally does not conscript people after age 41.

It was unclear whether Agca would face any criminal charges related to dodging the draft and escaping prison.