With release of pope gunman, Turks recall another shooting by the same man _ this one fatal

By Christopher Torchia, AP
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pope gunman’s release jars Turkey

ISTANBUL — The release of the Turkish man who shot the pope in 1981 has unsettled Turks who remember him for another crime — the killing of journalist Abdi Ipekci, whose calls for tolerance still resonate in a divided nation.

The world knows Mehmet Ali Agca for his attempt on Pope John Paul II, a brazen assault in the midst of throngs of the devout in Rome that has not been explained to the satisfaction of prosecutors. But his emergence after decades in jail had a deeper impact in Turkey, troubled by a dark past and concerns about impunity, conspiracy and freedom of expression.

Agca was convicted of the fatal shooting of Ipekci, chief editor of Milliyet newspaper, outside his apartment building in Istanbul on Feb. 1, 1979. Yet suspicions that he acted for a wider right-wing network never advanced beyond speculation in a country where many believe a “deep state,” renegade gangs with links to security forces, targeted perceived enemies.

Those suspicions about opaque power interests revived when Agca, 52, was released Monday. A black SUV with tinted windows ferried him to the luxury Sheraton hotel in Ankara, and he was escorted by men in suits, some with thick mustaches of a style worn by the now-defunct Gray Wolves, a rightist militant group to which Agca was once linked.

In a statement released Wednesday, Agca declared his innocence, saluted Ipekci’s family as “noble and respected” and said he “had no connection with official or unofficial circles in Turkey other than a handful of ultra-nationalists.”

Agca’s claims this week that he is the Messiah fueled old theories that he is indeed mentally ill, or is trying to stoke curiosity and diversion in order to collect as high a price as possible for selling his story.

His lawyer, Gokay Gultekin, said Agca was resting in Istanbul on Wednesday. He apologized for a reported incident in which armed associates of Agca threatened journalists on a highway while traveling with him from the capital.

Turkish journalists were deeply conflicted about Agca, so hungry for a sensational story that they rough-housed for position in the elegant hotel lobby after his release, but also repulsed by a man who killed one of their most respected colleagues.

“Ipekci’s dirty murderer,” grumbled some who felt they were bestowing on Agca the celebrity status that he appears to crave.

Milliyet newspaper published a front-page photograph of the gaunt, gray-haired Agca with a black strip across his eyes and the headline: “We don’t want to see his face.”

Ipekci, an advocate of secular democracy who was seen as leftist by hardline nationalists, appeared to be the victim of ideological divisions driven by the Cold War. In contrast, one of the main rifts in democratic Turkey today pits the Islamic-rooted government against secular circles linked to the military and judiciary.

But his message of inclusion and democratic change applies across the decades, his admirers said, and the naming in his honor of an Istanbul street and a major sports arena, as well as the unveiling of a bronze bust, have established him as an icon for some.

“That message is as valid today 30 years on,” said Semih Idiz, a columnist at Milliyet. “He’s obviously a very big role model for a very significant portion of the population.”

While Turkey is far more stable than it was three decades ago, recent murders of journalists seem to echo the lack of answers surrounding Ipekci’s death and reinforce the sense that transparency is elusive and expression can be dangerous.

In 1993, investigative reporter Ugur Mumcu died in a car bombing. The case was never solved.

Ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was fatally shot three years ago outside his newspaper office, just blocks from where Ipekci was assassinated. A young triggerman is on trial and state agents have been scrutinized for negligence, but Dink’s family and lawyers say the real masterminds of the murder have yet to be uncovered.

On Dec. 19, Cihan Hayirsevener, the editor of a newspaper in the western town of Bandirma, was fatally shot after reporting on a local corruption scandal. Authorities are investigating.

Agca had received a life sentence, which amounts to 36 years under Turkish law, for murdering Ipekci, but he promptly escaped from prison and left the country — possibly with the help of an underground network — and shot the pope two years later. After his extradition from Italy in 2000, authorities deducted time served in Italy, and several amnesties and legal amendments further reduced his term.

The complex calculation of his punishment led to his wrongful release from prison in 2006. He was re-imprisoned eight days later.

Agca’s contradictory statements about his attack on the pope have frustrated official inquiries over the decades. At the time of his arrest, he said he acted alone, but later suggested Bulgaria and the Soviet Union’s KGB were behind the attack. Prosecutors in Poland, where John Paul II was born, say Agca is an unreliable source of testimony.

In Turkey, those who dwell on Ipekci’s murder include Hasan Fehmi Gunes, the interior minister at the time.

“I harbor the suspicion that those who directed him toward the act, those who protected him, those who organized his escape are at this point protecting him and directing the process,” Gunes told Cumhuriyet newspaper.

Associated Press Write Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara.

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