When he shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 in St. Peter's Square, would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca was, for most of the world, a mysterious and enigmatic figure, one who seemed to come out of nowhere.
In Turkey, though, Agca was already a known commodity, arrested in 1979 for the murder of Abdi Ipekci, a prominent left-leaning journalist, only to escape from jail while on trial and then resurface on that fateful day in Rome.
Ipekci's killing took place during a time of extreme political turbulence in Turkey, marked by daily, violent clashes between leftist and rightist groups. The disorder ultimately led to a military coup in 1980.
Agca emerged a free man on January 18, after serving 19 years in an Italian jail for shooting the pope and then another 10 years in a Turkish prison for Ipekci's murder. In Turkey, Agca's release has been met with a certain sense of trepidation -- his reappearance a reminder of both the violent period he first emerged in, and of how much the shadow of that period still hangs over the country. "His release is a reminder of a dark time, one of the darkest of our history. It's something that we dread," said Mehmet Ali Birand, a veteran Turkish journalist who interviewed Agca while he was in prison in Italy.
As he exited prison, the 52-year-old Agca was met by a small group of relatives and well-wishers who greeted him with drums and pipes, a traditional way to celebrate a prisoner's release in Turkey. The media was less welcoming, though. "Abdi Ipekci Murdered Again," was the headline on the front page of Milliyet, the newspaper that the slain journalist was the editor of at the time of his killing. "That Murderer Is Among Us Now," was the headline of Sabah, another daily.
Many commentators pointed out that Agca's release came only a day before the third anniversary of the murder of Hrant Dink, an outspoken Armenian journalist shot in front of his Istanbul office by a young man who, like Agca, was linked to ultranationalist forces. Like Agca's release, Dink's murder also stoked memories of the turbulent 70's and 80's, when journalists and intellectuals were frequently the victims of ideologically inspired violence.
The Dink murder trial has been going on for three years, but - as with IpekciÕs killing - many circumstances surrounding the case, particularly its links to the "Deep State," a phrase used to describe a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment, remain untouched. "No distance has been covered regarding these murders. The tip of the iceberg has been broken, that is it. This is the dark face of Turkey," columnist Ali Bayramoglu wrote in the Turkish daily Yeni Safak following AgcaÕs release.
Agca burst onto the world stage on May 13, 1981, when he shot John Paul II as the Polish-born pontiff was riding through St Peter's Square in an open vehicle. Several shots rang out, three hitting the pontiff, who was rushed to the hospital. The pope visited Agca in his jail cell in 1983 and forgave his would-be assassin. Following John Paul's recommendation, Italian authorities pardoned Agca in 2000 and extradited him to Turkey, where he was finally jailed for the murder of Ipekci.
After his arrest in Italy and during his time in prison there, Agca frequently made grandiose statements, sometimes comparing himself to Christ, which called his sanity into question. Things were no different upon his release on January 18. "I proclaim the end of the world. All the world will be destroyed in this century. Every human being will die in this century. ... I am the Christ eternal," Agca said in a statement released at the prison gates.
Agca's taste of freedom, meanwhile, was initially short lived. Upon his release, he was taken straight to an Ankara military facility in order to be checked out to see if he's fit for military duty. Turkey's has a mandatory draft and Agca never fulfilled his military duty.
After a few hours, military authorities determined that the convicted murderer was unfit for duty. Agca, dressed in a blue suit, later turned up at Ankara's Sheraton hotel, where he reportedly retreated to a 540-euro-per-night room.
Almost 30 years later, mystery and conspiracy theories still surround the shooting of the Pope. Was Agca, a former member of an ultra-nationalist Turkish group called the Grey Wolves, acting alone, or was he part of a conspiracy?
Agca's murder of Ipekci and his escape from prison are also still shrouded in mystery. Although Agca initially claimed that he acted on his own, his escape - which took place with the help of people on the inside who smuggled him out dressed up as a soldier - came after Agca started suggesting that he would reveal who else was involved in the plot to kill Ipekci. It has long been suspected in Turkey that the journalist's murder was yet another crime committed by elements of the Deep State.
Before his release, meanwhile, Agca made headlines with announcements of lucrative book and movie deals that promised to tell all about his past. Of course, based on his past statements, the big question might be just how much stock can anyone put in what Agca has to say? "We are so interested in him because we want to know who was behind him and who was manipulating him," says Birand. "But now it's quite clear that we are not going to get it."