ISTANBUL, (Reuters) – Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot and seriously wounded Pope John Paul II in 1981, was freed from a Turkish prison on Thursday and immediately claimed by the army for missed military service.
A stint in the armed forces is a legal duty for all Turkish men, but Agca’s lawyers hope his age, 48, will earn him a reprieve.
“The procedure for his military service has started,” lawyer Mustafa Demirbag told Reuters.
Agca served 19 years in an Italian prison for the assassination attempt in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square before being pardoned at the Pope’s behest in 2000.
He was then extradited to Turkey to serve a separate sentence in an Istanbul jail for robbery and murder.
Under new Turkish laws, his time served in Italy was deducted from the 25 years left on his sentence in Turkey for the 1979 murder of a liberal newspaper editor, Abdi Ipekci.
The state Anatolian news agency said Agca would be released after medical checks at the Tuzla army training base. It was not immediately clear whether or when he would do his army service.
Agca, dressed in blue jeans, a blue sweater and training shoes, looked solemn as he walked in handcuffs from the Istanbul jail under heavy police escort.
The man who has never clearly explained why he tried to kill the Pope made no comment to the 100 or so journalists from Turkey and abroad outside the prison gate.
A few well-wishers, apparently Turkish ultra-nationalists, threw flowers at the car which whisked him away. Agca belonged to a right-wing militant faction in Turkey in the late 1970s.
After completing paperwork at an Istanbul army recruitment office, Agca emerged without handcuffs and holding a large picture of himself meeting Pope John Paul, who forgave him his crime.
Agca, who claimed at his trial to be a reincarnation of Jesus and said he became a Christian after the Pope visited him in jail, was then driven from the recruitment office to the Tuzla base for the medical checks.
“Agca said he was not feeling well enough to do his military service. If he fails the medical tests, he will be taken to a military hospital. If not, he will begin his service,” said an official at the recruitment office who requested anonymity.
Asked if Agca was not too old to do his military service, he said: “Military service can be done up until the day you die.”
Agca’s release has sparked criticism in Turkey.
“Day of shame,” said the centrist Milliyet newspaper, for which the slain Ipekci worked. It criticised Justice Minister Cemil Cicek for not intervening to keep Agca behind bars longer.
Agca has given conflicting reasons why he raised his gun above the crowd in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square and shot the Pope.
At a 1986 trial, prosecutors failed to prove charges that Bulgarian secret services had hired Agca to kill the Pope on behalf of the Soviet Union.
The so-called “Bulgarian Connection” trial ended with an “acquittal for lack of sufficient evidence” of three Turks and three Bulgarians charged with conspiring along with Agca.
The Polish-born Pontiff, who is credited by historians with helping the collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989, said on a trip to Bulgaria in 2002 that he had never believed the country was linked to the assassination bid.
John Paul died last year aged 84.
Agca claims that he is now a man of peace specially chosen by God. The Vatan newspaper quoted him on Thursday as saying he would write a “new Bible” after his release from jail.
Turkish authorities have always denied any connection with Agca and have dismissed him as mentally unstable.