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Conviction of Bulgarians in papal plot trial seen as unlikely

The alleged ``Bulgarian connection'' in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II appears to have been dropped. Although the trial in Rome against four Turks and three Bulgarians accused of plotting to kill the Pope has some weeks to go, Prosecutor Antonio Marini asked last month for the acquittal of the three Bulgarians, explaining there was not enough evidence to convict them.

The three, who are expected to be acquitted, are Sergei Antonov, the former Rome station chief of the Bulgarian state airlines, who is in custody in Rome; and Zhelyo Vasilev and Todor Aivasov, both former officers of the Bulgarian Embassy in Italy, who returned to Sofia and are being tried in absentia. Under Italian law, Mr. Marini's call for acquittal means the prosecution believes that the Bulgarians are guilty but that it cannot prove it.

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The trial has come under fire from a leader in Italy's Communist Party, who described the case as one of the biggest mistakes ever made by the Italian justice. The Italian investigators, according to Emanuele Macaluso, were trapped in a dangerous provocation against the Soviet bloc. Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who shot the Pope on May 13, 1981, may have been ``coached'' in prison by Western intelligence on what to say in court, Mr. Macaluso says. (Mr. Agca was given a life sentence for shooting the Pope.)

Marini has a different story. He has bitterly accused the Italian court of rushing the case. The court, he said, wanting ``to close the case as soon as possible,'' did not sufficiently investigate some of the evidence, and failed to question key witnesses, such as Mr. Antonov's wife.

A source close to Italian intelligence said the secret services are not surprised by the outcome of the trial.

Intelligence officials, reported that source, were convinced that there was Bulgarian involvement in the attack against the Pope.

But he added that they also knew they were moving in a kind of mine field and that they probably couldn't go to the end of the case because of political considerations.

The investigation into an alleged ``Bulgarian connection'' started in 1982, when Soviet-American relations were taking a nose dive. But after last year's successful superpower summit in Geneva, no one wants to see warmer relations sabotaged, the source added. A high government official in Rome, however, says the Italian government ``never interfered'' with the investigations.

The trial against the seven Turks and Bulgarians started on May 27, 1985. The prosecution has asked for life sentences for Musa Serdar Celebi and Oral Celik, two Turks accused of being involved in the plot. Mr. Celik is still at large. Marini requested a 24-year sentence for Omer Bagci, another Turk, who confessed of having smuggled into Italy the gun that Agca used to shoot the Pope. Another defendant, Bekir Celenk, passed on in Turkish prison last year.

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There has been no comment from the Vatican on the latest events in the case.

A verdict in the case is expected at the end of the month, unless Agca makes further dramatic revelations in the courtroom. Agca's credibility was undermined earlier in the trial by his odd behavior in court, including his assertion that he was Jesus Christ.

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