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Pope's Attacker Arrested Again

Turkey detains Mehmet Ali Agca after a court overturns a decision to free him. The release, in a separate case, had sparked a public outcry.

January 21, 2006|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981, was detained by authorities Friday after an appeals court overturned a decision to free Turkey's most notorious criminal.

An hour and half after the ruling, police handcuffed Agca at an apartment block in Istanbul's lower middle class Kartal neighborhood, close to the jail from which he had been released Jan. 12.

Istanbul Gov. Muammer Guler said Agca did not put up a fight. He did, however, repeat assertions that he was the messiah.

"I am not God," he said in English, adding in Turkish, "The day of judgment has come." He also told reporters in Italian, "I am the Christ," before police whisked him away in a silver gray sedan.

Agca was expected to spend the night at an Istanbul police station and appear before a prosecutor today. The 48-year-old was freed this month, five years after he was extradited to Turkey from Italy. Agca spent more than 19 years in an Italian prison for the attack on the pope; John Paul visited him there in 1983 and forgave him.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was up to the local court to decide how much more time Agca would have to serve. "The Justice Ministry did its duty. After this, it is down to the legal process," he said.

Agca staged the attack on John Paul after escaping from a Turkish prison where he was serving time for the murder of Abdi Ipekci, the managing editor of the daily newspaper Milliyet. A court recently decided to release Agca, saying that time he served in Italy should count toward the 10-year sentence for Ipekci's murder. Agca originally had been sentenced to death, but that was commuted under a controversial 1999 amnesty law.

Agca is an enigmatic figure with alleged connections to ultra-nationalist death squads that operated in Turkey in the years leading up to the nation's 1980 coup. His motive for shooting the pope in the abdomen in the crowded St. Peter's Square in 1981 remains unclear. John Paul was back at work a month later but never fully recovered. He died last April after years of combating Parkinson's disease.

The decision to free Agca drew sharp criticism across Turkey. Milliyet ran the headline, "Turkey's Day of Shame." Defense lawyers for the Ipekci family immediately appealed the ruling, saying it was based on an erroneous calculation of Agca's sentence.

In a letter to Milliyet, Ipekci's daughter, Nukhet, wrote that "I see him as our national assassin. He is the person that has caused the words 'Turkish' and 'murder' to come together."

Bowing to public pressure, the Justice Ministry appealed the decision to free Agca. And on Friday the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that there was "no legal foundation for deducting Agca's time spent in prison in Italy from the punishments for crimes which he committed in Turkey."

"Justice has finally been served," Guneri Civaoglu, Milliyet's chief columnist, said.

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