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.”