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Pope plot trial ends in ambiguous verdict

Investigation into the 1981 shooting of Pope John Paul II may have to start again from the beginning. On Saturday, a Rome court acquitted three Bulgarians and three Turks of conspiracy in a plot to kill the Pope, saying there was not enough evidence to convict them.

The verdict announced by the Italian court implies that evidence exists to support both the guilt and innocence of the defendants and that the court was thus unable to reach a conclusive decision. The verdict, ending more than three years of pretrial investigation and a 10-month trial, also left unanswered the question of whether Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca was acting on his own when he shot the Pope on May 13, 1981, or was, as he claimed, part of an international plot.

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The verdict has done nothing to quiet the debate over the so-called ``Bulgarian connection'' in the attempted killing, which held that the Soviet bloc ordered the assassination in order to quell opposition to communism in the Pope's native Poland.

The trial was a thorn in East-West relations, and after the verdict was announced, both the Soviet and Bulgarian news agencies hastened to give their views on the case. Tass, the official Soviet news agency, said, ``The West's reactionary quarters failed to further their sordid aims of smearing the Bulgarians. . . . The so-called `Bulgarian connection' has crumbled to nothing.''

Bulgaria said the verdict repudiated the charges completely and said the court's ambiguous ruling meant that the court ``failed to overcome its political prejudice.''

But Italian public prosecutor Antonio Marini said, ``We are back at the starting point. The court didn't want to decide [the case].''

Although Mr. Marini says he still believes in the ``Bulgarian connection,'' he argued in his summation last month for acquitting the Bulgarians for lack of evidence. He now says he intends to appeal the court's verdict and press the case further against the Turks.

Guiseppe Consolo, lawyer for Sergei Antonov, a Bulgarian defendant, said he was not satisfied with the ambiguous verdict. ``We will ask for a full acquittal,'' he said.

Aside from Agca, only three defendents attended the trial: Mr. Antonov, a former deputy head of the Bulgarian airline office in Rome who has been in custody here since 1982, and two Turks, Musa Serdar Celebi and Omer Bagci. Two other Bulgarians, Zhelyo Vasilev and Todor Aivasov, both former officers of the Bulgarian Embassy in Rome, returned to Bulgaria and were tried in absentia. Turkish defendant Oral Celik is at large. Another defendant, Bekir Celenk, died last summer in a Turkish prison.

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Mr. Agca is already serving a life sentence for shooting the Pope. But he was convicted along with Mr. Bagci in this trial on a gun-smuggling charge. Agca received a one-year sentence with two months in solitary confinement. Bagci was sentenced to three years in prison. But his sentence cannot be imposed because of a legal technicality: He was extradited from Switzerland only on a conspiracy charge, not for smuggling weapons, and was acquitted of conspiracy.

The ``Bulgarian connection'' rested largely on Agca's accusations. In early 1982 he began speaking about a plot. Before that, he had asserted that he was acting on his own when he shot the Pope.

Lack of reliable witnesses hampered the trial and Marini complained that he could not complete investigations as he wished. From the time the trial opened last May, Agca's odd behavior -- such as declaring in open court that he was Jesus Christ -- undermined his credibility.

As the trial neared its end, the decision to acquit the defendants, especially the Bulgarians, was largely expected here. Antonov had already booked his flight to Sofia before the court announced the verdict.

The Vatican offered no comment on the verdict. L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily newspaper, published news of the decision without comment on the last page in a 19-line item.

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