NOW that the Agca ``Trial of the Century'' has taken a leisurely summer recess, we may reflect how national justice systems have profound international consequences in our shrunken world. Mehmet Ali Agca's 1981 assassination attempt against the Pope soured Italian-Bulgarian relations and led to press portrayal of a Soviet Union as the manipulator of world terrorism. Western audiences welcomed this portrait as willingly as Eastern-bloc citizens and sympathizers discover CIA machinations behind every negative event.
While the world press has reported the daily debate between Agca and his judges, weighing every statement for its possible veracity, it has ignored the national context in which the drama has unfolded.
Much of the wild speculation and confusion regarding Agca's possible activities reflect the Italian justice system's nature.
In a country historically insensitive to civil rights, Italian television reporters freely proclaim suspects guilty before a trial, prisoners routinely wait years for trials, judges debate with defendants, magistrates compete according to different political persuasions, and respected newspapers print startling headlines such as, ``The Brute of Florence has been arrested.''
In Italy, contradictions and dramatic reversals in sensational cases such as the papal plot are normal.
In 1969 a bomb exploded in a Milan bank, killing 14. Conditioned to chasing anarchists in bombings, the police arrested several of them. One ``fell'' from a window of the police station to his death, and the other, Pietro Valpreda, languished in jail for almost five years while the police gathered evidence against him. Angered at the lengthy delay, the parliament passed a law stipulating that an accused person could not be held in jail without a trial for longer than Valpreda. In the meantime, the polic e -- of which there are several competing corps with complete freedom to cut a good figure -- had arrested two Neo-Fascists but had to release them because they could not produce the evidence within the time limit.
At a loss for a logical explanation, prosecutors tried both anarchists and Neo-Fascists in the bombing, but it then appeared that the Italian intelligence services had a hand in the explosion for political reasons.
Sixteen years have passed, no one was found guilty, and the state is still working on the case.
As a result of terrorism, the state instituted preventive detention for up to 10 years and eight months. The result: prisons overcrowded with a large proportion of the inmates awaiting trial.
Italian officials arrest first and ask questions later -- much later. Thus a drug dealer accused Enzo Tortora, a well-known television personality, of dealing drugs, and the prosecutor held him for two years while he searched for evidence against him. Tortora had to take his case to the European Parliament in order to have a trial.
In November 1982 the police arrested Serghei Ivanov Antonov, who Agca denounced in the conspiracy against John Paul II. While the Bulgarian waited in jail for two years, Italian officials and the press speculated on every aspect of his case, up to and including whether Agca really got Antonov's telephone number from the telephone book.
In seeking to break the Mafia, Italian magistrates have conducted mass arrests solely on the word of ``pentiti,'' who they encourage to name names with the promise of lighter sentences. The persons thus accused are then arrested and kept in jail while officials conduct a lengthy hunt for evidence.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Italian officials would accept Agca's testimony with practically no independent corroborating evidence. Numerous examples exist of these officials accepting conspiracy theories, usually of a wildly conflicting nature, conducting arrests, and then searching for evidence which turns out to be unconvincing.
The latest example is the Sismi scandal, the much-reorganized Italian intelligence service. In investigating an attempted train bombing, Italian officials accused German Neo-Nazis, but now charge Sismi involvement. According to the press, Sismi also engineered the ``Billygate'' scandal during the Carter administration in collaboration with an American historian close to Henry Kissinger and Francesco Pazienza, a former Sismi operative and current manipulator of Italian life.
Not surprisingly, the Agca case has taken a similar turn. In an amazing tour de force, a Neapolitan organized crime figure has linked up Agca, the Italian right wing, Sismi, and P-2, a renegade Masonic lodge.
It's great fun if you're not waiting for a trial in Italy.
Spencer DiScala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.