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Release of pope gunman blocked

Mehmet Agca
Parliament will now debate the bill which could free Agca for a second time  

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Turkey's president has vetoed an amnesty bill that could have freed 10 years early the Turkish gunman who shot Pope John Paul II.

The gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, spent nearly 20 years in an Italian prison after shooting and seriously injuring the pope in 1981.

He is now serving 17 years for the 1979 murder of Turkish newspaper editor Abdi Ipekci and the robbery of an Istanbul factory that year.

The amnesty could have cut Agca's sentence to seven years, of which he has already served nearly two.

Parliament approved the amnesty bill on Thursday, but President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said on Saturday that it had serious faults.

The sentence reductions would occur regardless of a prisoner's behaviour, he said. Also, the bill passed with a majority but not with 60 percent of parliament -- which Sezer argued was constitutionally necessary for a special amnesty.

Under the amnesty, most convicts would be released 10 years early. The measure would apply to all prisoners except those convicted of terrorism charges or treason.

Nearly 20,000 Turkish prisoners were freed by an amnesty in December 2000. The amendment passed late on Thursday followed complaints that the previous amnesty unfairly discriminated between prisoners.

Pope, Mehmet
Pope John Paul II talks to Mehmet Agca in a prison in Rome  

Due to Sezer's veto, parliament will debate the bill for a second time. If it passes again without changes, Sezer would be required to sign it, but could ask the Constitutional Court for an annulment.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit expressed disappointment over the amnesty. "I can't digest this," Ecevit said. "I hope this will be prevented. I am not a supporter of such a wide amnesty."

Italy extradited Agca to Turkey after Rome pardoned him for the 1981 attack in St. Peter's Square that wounded the pope. Agca carried out the shooting after escaping from prison in Turkey, where he was being held for killing Ipekci. Agca's motives for the pope attack have been the source of much speculation, but remain unclear.

Turkey has introduced dozens of prisoner amnesties over the years to help ease conditions in tense, overcrowded prisons.

However, critics accuse the government of tailoring the new amnesty to benefit Agca -- once affiliated with a far-right movement that had links to a nationalist party now in government -- and Haluk Kirci, another former nationalist militant jailed for murdering seven leftist students in 1978.

Turkish media were strongly critical of the prospect of an early release for Agca.

"We are ashamed," headlined the daily Milliyet, where slain Abdi Ipekci worked as editor, on Friday over a picture of Agca.

"Agca has never expressed regret or apologised, why should he be pardoned?" the paper quoted Ipekci's daughter Nukhet as saying.


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