The Turkish gunman who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 was released from prison yesterday after serving more than 25 years behind bars in Italy and Turkey for the plot against the pontiff and the slaying of a Turkish journalist.
To the cheers of nationalist supporters, a white sedan whisked Mehmet Ali Agca -- whose attempt to assassinate the pope gained notoriety for himself and shame for his homeland -- through the gates of the high-security Kartal Prison as dozens of policemen stood guard.
Agca, 48, 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 prison in Italy.
"We are happy. We endlessly thank the Turkish state," said his brother, Adnan.
He said one of the first things Agca wanted to do was order a typical Turkish meal of beans and rice at a restaurant overlooking the Bosporus Strait, the narrow waterway that bisects Istanbul and joins the European and Asian continents.
Curious onlookers peered down from the windows and balconies of a nearby apartment building. As the car carrying Agca pulled away from the prison about 20km outside Istanbul, his supporters showered it with red and yellow flowers.
Agca shot the pope as he rode in an open car in St. Peter's Square in Rome on May 13, 1981, and was captured immediately. Two years after the shooting, the pope met with Agca in prison and forgave him.
Agca has never offered a motive for the shooting.
Many Turks were surprised and outraged at last week's court decision releasing Agca on parole after serving four-and-a-half years in prison for killing a left-wing columnist, Abdi Ipekci, in 1979.
"Agca is not just the murderer of my father ... I see him as our national assassin," Ipekci's daughter, Nukhet, said in a letter published on the front page of his newspaper, Milliyet. "He is a person who has caused the words `Turkish' and `murder' to come together."
"A murderer like him who has stained Turkey's image should not be released," said Deniz Ergin, a 23-year-old university student.