Agca's credibility hangs in the balance

The outcome of the papal plot trial, with its implications for East-West relations, now appears to hinge on the credibility of its main defendant and witness. Italian investigating judges are trying to substantiate the testimony of Mehmet Ali Agca, the convicted assailant of Pope John Paul II.

This week, for the first time in 21/2 weeks of hearings in a Rome courtroom, Mr. Agca told the court that the Soviet Union was behind his attempt to assassinate the Pope in Rome on May 13, 1981. He had previously implicated the Bulgarian secret service. Should the East-bloc connection be proven in this trial, it would put a further chill on already frosty East-West ties.

But Agca damaged his credibility at the opening of the trial by claiming emotionally to be ``Jesus Christ.'' In addition, the details of Agca's testimony both in this case and in pretrial examination, have sometimes been contradictory.

``We must guard against abstractions. This trial must be based on facts,'' prosecutor Antonio Marini has said on more than one occasion.

Yet facts are hard to come by when dealing with Agca's testimony. A small part of Agca's testimony -- the smuggling into Italy of the gun he used to shoot the Pope -- has been substantiated by the only other witness questioned so far, Omer Bagci.Mr. Bagci, one of the Turkish defendants in the case, testified that he brought the gun across the Swiss-Italian border and handed it over to Agca in Milan.

But most of Agca's statements cry out for corroboration.

Agca told the court yesterday that ``the Bulgarians wanted to eliminate'' Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, the banned Polish trade union. The plan, he said, was to kill Mr. Walesa by a remote-controlled car bomb in Rome in January 1981.

That scheme was abandoned after an unidentified Italian tipped off the police, he said.

The Turk also said he was sent by Bulgarians to Tunisia.

There he looked into the possibility of killing President Habib Bourguiba and former Maltese Prime Minister Dom Mintoff.

On Tuesday, Agca testified that he and Bekir Celenk, an alleged leader of the Turkish mafia, met with the first secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1980 to discuss the assassination of the Pope. He gave the secretary's name as ``either Milenkov or Malenkov.''

The Soviet official, Agca said, ``paid 3 million [German] marks to the Gray Wolves [a Turkish right-wing terrorist group with which Agca claims association] to kill the Pope, paying through Celenk.''

Mr. Celenk, a defendant in the case, is now living in Sofia, and the Bulgarians refuse to extradite him to Italy.

The men also discussed other ``civil targets in Belgium, Holland, and West Germany, and NATO installations,'' Agca claimed.

Mr. Marini said on Tuesday that much of the evidence presented by Agca would be almost impossible to verify.

Perhaps the greatest damage to Agca's credibility was done at the opening of the trial, when he proclaimed ``the end of the world'' and asserted that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Although Agca has since responded rationally to Judge Severino Santiapichi's strategic questions, outside observers question the psychiatric stability of the trial's star witness.

Another view, however, is held by investigating magistrate Ilario Martella, whose research led to the indictment in the present trial. He says that Agca's wavering testimony is deliberate. Judge Martella maintains that Agca ``has hidden part of the truth in order to use it as barter for his freedom at an opportune moment.''

Agca's mental state was examined immediately after his arrest in St. Peter's Square. He was found to be ``alert and in command of himself,'' and he appeared ``neither frightened nor worried'' about his arrest.

But that examination was not enough, says Rome jurist Nino Marazzita, who has experience in some of Italy's foremost political and criminal cases.

``He should have been given an expert psychiatric examination at the initial trial for his attempt to kill the Pope,'' says Mr. Marazzita. ``One appreciates that the judicial authorities wanted to give the impression of efficiency with a quick trial for such a heinous crime, but it would seem they overlooked what to me is the key element -- the sanity of the accused.''

And Giuseppe Consolo, attorney for Sergei Ivanov Antonov, a Bulgarian defendant charged in the case, says, ``I am amazed that someone like this has been able to run rings round Italian justice.''

Agca, who is serving a life sentence for shooting the Pope, is charged in the present case with smuggling the gun into Italy that he used in the attack. He is also a witness in the trial against his co-defendants, three Bulgarians and four Turks.

Of the Bulgarians only one, Mr. Antonov, a Bulgarian airlines representative in Rome at the time of the shooting, is in court. The others, diplomats in the Bulgarian Embassy in Rome, returned home in the summer of 1982 and are claiming diplomatic immunity -- a claim rejected by the court on the first day of the trial.

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