Would-Be Pope Assassin to Be Freed

The Turk who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 will be released from prison Thursday, but he then may be tried in a military court for allegedly dodging the draft and escaping military custody, an official said Monday.

A Turkish court decided last week to free Mehmet Ali Agca, 47, on parole, saying he had completed his prison term for crimes committed in Turkey. Agca was extradited to Turkey in 2000 after serving almost 20 years in an Italian prison for shooting and wounding John Paul in St. Peter's Square in Rome on May 13, 1981.

His motive for shooting the pope in the abdomen remains unclear.

Agca's lawyer told The Associated Press on Monday that his client was looking forward to his impending release.

"He is very, very happy," Mustafa Demirbag said. "He has no plans for the future for now, but he is looking forward to his freedom."

Demirbag said Agca likely would be taken to a military station following his release and then to a military hospital in Istanbul for medical checks, a routine procedure.

However, it was not clear if he will be enlisted in the army, which generally accepts conscripts until 41.

But an official said Agca might even be taken to a military court for dodging the draft and escaping from a military prison in 1979. The official spoke on condition of anonymity Monday because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

In Warsaw, Poland, John Paul II's former private secretary, who held the wounded pope in his arms after he was shot in 1981, accepted the court's decision to release Agca and was praying for him, his spokesman said.

"John Paul II pardoned Ali Agca a long time ago," Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz told the AP through his spokesman, the Rev. Robert Necek. "The decision to release him belongs to the justice system in Ankara.

"Now John Paul II is praying for him in heaven and I am praying also," Necek quoted Dziwisz, who served as John Paul's closest aide for more than 40 years until the pontiff's death in April, as saying.

Dziwisz also has "forgiven him in his heart," Necek said.

John Paul II met with Agca in Italy's Rebibbia prison in 1983 and forgave him for the shooting.

Demirbag said he was touched by the Vatican statement.

"On behalf of my client I want to thank the Vatican. We were pleased by the statement," he said.

On Sunday, Demirbag said he had known about the court's decision, but was keeping it a secret.

Demirbag, explaining the court decision, said Agca was sentenced to life in prison, which amounts to 36 years under Turkish law, for murdering Turkish journalist Abdi Ipekci in 1979.

Agca reportedly sympathized with the Gray Wolves, a far right-wing militant group that fought street battles against leftists in the 1970s. He initially confessed to killing Ipekci, one of the country's most prominent left-wing newspaper columnists, but later retracted his statements.

Agca served less than six months in a Turkish prison in 1979 for killing Ipekci before he escaped, resurfacing in 1981 in Rome. A 1991 amnesty deducted 10 more years from his time, leaving some 25 1/2 years to be served, he said.

The court last week further deducted his 20 years in prison in Italy based on a new article in the penal code, which was amended by the Turkish government recently at the request of the European Union to raise the standard of human rights.

That left Agca to serve a sentence of just more than 5 1/2 years. That sentence ends Thursday, Demirbag said.