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Turk who shot Pope John Paul II is released from prison

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) — After 25 years behind bars for try­ing to assas­si­nate Pope John Paul II and fatal­ly gun­ning down a jour­nal­ist, Mehmet Ali Agca was released from prison — and prompt­ly gave his sup­port­ers and his ene­mies the slip.

With­in hours of tast­ing free­dom Thurs­day for the first time since wound­ing John Paul in 1981, Agca dis­ap­peared out the back door of a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal.

He left behind hordes of jour­nal­ists, along with ques­tions about whether he will be forced to com­plete the manda­to­ry mil­i­tary ser­vice he dodged as a young man.

Scores of ultra­na­tion­al­ist right-wing sup­port­ers cheered his release and tossed flow­ers at the sedan that whisked him through the gates of a high-secu­ri­ty prison.

But many Turks expressed dis­may that Agca, 48, served just five years for the slay­ing of news­pa­per colum­nist Abdi Ipekci in 1979, dur­ing a time of street vio­lence between right­ists and left­ists.

Jus­tice Min­is­ter Cemil Cicek ordered a review to see whether any errors were com­mit­ted in releas­ing him. He said Agca would remain free until an appeals court reviewed the case.

“If there is an error, that would dam­age Turkey’s image” as the nation push­es to join the Euro­pean Union, said Ilter Turan, a polit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Istan­bul’s Bil­gi Uni­ver­si­ty.

“Day of shame,” head­lined the dai­ly Mil­liyet, Ipekci’s news­pa­per.

Cicek said Agca’s release was not “a guar­an­teed right,” not­ing there have been sev­er­al cas­es in which con­victs freed by mis­take were returned to prison. He said Agca ben­e­fit­ed from amnesties, passed by pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ments, which have freed tens of thou­sands of crim­i­nals over the past decades.

Agca, white-haired and wear­ing a bright blue sweater and jeans, was freed five years after he was par­doned by Italy and extra­dit­ed to Turkey. He had served 20 years in Italy, where John Paul for­gave him in a vis­it to his prison cell in 1983.

Agca shot John Paul as the pope rode in an open car in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981, and was cap­tured imme­di­ate­ly. John Paul was hit in the abdomen, left hand and right arm, but recov­ered because Agca’s bul­lets missed vital organs.

Cicek said a mil­i­tary court had ordered Agca’s exe­cu­tion in 1980 for mur­der­ing Ipekci but the sen­tence was com­mut­ed to life in prison in 2002, after Turkey abol­ished the death penal­ty. The life sen­tence was trans­lat­ed into 36 years.

Mustafa Demirbag, Agca’s lawyer, said the local court that ordered the release deduct­ed his time served in Italy and Turkey, where he pre­vi­ous­ly was jailed for six months before escap­ing in 1979.

Ipekci’s fam­i­ly object­ed to the deci­sion to free Agca, but anoth­er local court in Istan­bul ruled this week that his release was law­ful, Cicek said.

“I per­son­al­ly think the review of the case by the appeals court would be ben­e­fi­cial,” Cicek said.

After his release, Agca — who ini­tial­ly was hand­cuffed — report­ed to a mil­i­tary recruit­ment cen­ter. As he left, uncuffed, he hand­ed a jour­nal­ist a pho­to­copy of a Time mag­a­zine cov­er show­ing him with the pope and the head­line: “Why for­give?”

Agca went for a rou­tine check­up at a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal, leav­ing through a back door only used by high mil­i­tary com­man­ders. His where­abouts were not imme­di­ate­ly known.

The semi­of­fi­cial Ana­to­lia news agency said the hos­pi­tal would issue a report on whether the 48-year-old Agca, a draft evad­er in his youth, was fit for manda­to­ry mil­i­tary ser­vice.

Asked about the men­tal health of Agca, who has been known for fre­quent out­bursts and claims that he was the Mes­si­ah, his broth­er, Adnan, said: “He is very good.” The broth­er denied reports that Agca had sought mon­ey for media inter­views.

“We don’t need any mon­ey. Love is more impor­tant than mon­ey. We don’t want mon­ey,” he said.

Agca has nev­er under­gone a thor­ough psy­cho­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion, although he met briefly with a psy­chi­a­trist who declared him fit to stand tri­al for shoot­ing the pope.

Dozens of flag-wav­ing nation­al­ists rejoiced over his release.

“He is a fam­i­ly friend. We love him,” Mustafa Akmer­can, one of two Turks who hijacked a jet­lin­er in 1997 to demand Agca’s release, told The Asso­ci­at­ed Press out­side the prison. “We’re very hap­py.”

But the return of Agca and his ultra­na­tion­al­ist friends to the head­lines of news­pa­pers rekin­dled old enmi­ties.

Out­side the mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal, about 250 left-wing activists denounced the release. “Agca will pay!” they shout­ed, hold­ing pic­tures of com­rades killed by the Gray Wolves, an ultra­na­tion­al­ist mil­i­tant group with whom Agca alleged­ly was affil­i­at­ed.

The jus­tice min­is­ter urged the nation to remem­ber and take lessons from the 1970s street clash­es that killed some 5,000 peo­ple.

“Ter­ror and anar­chy have cost the lives of many peo­ple,” Cicek said. “We should take the nec­es­sary lessons from that chaos.”