Bulgaria rebuts charges that it conspired to kill the Pope
It is now late September, and the Italian judiciary still has not brought an indictment against the men accused of conspiring to assassinate Pope John Paul II.
This prolonged delay is seen here as tacit admission of basic flaws in the prosecution's case that Bulgaria's secret service conspired with Mehmet Ali Agca , the would-be assassin, to kill the Pope.
''We are, first of all, ideologically against terrorism and we had no reason to want the Pope killed,'' Boyan Traykov, head of the official Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, stated flatly during a three-hour review of the case.
Mr. Traykov, a veteran journalist, is a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party's Central Committee. Neither party nor government here has entered directly into the fray over the ''plot.''
''That,'' Traykov said, ''would suggest we attach weight to the charges, that we are under pressure. Far from it - we know we have no case to answer.''
Traykov is in effect the government's spokesman in the affair. Western diplomats here praise the skill with which he handles the role in press conferences, in statements issued through his agency, and in a series of articles analyzing the case in great detail.
The New York Times in June outlined the bizarre, labyrinthine story of the alleged ''Bulgarian connection'' as contained in a still-secret report by Italian state prosecutor Antonio Albano.
According to contents of the report leaked to the Times, the Bulgarian secret service, operating through three Bulgarians in Rome, was behind Agca's gun when he shot and wounded the Pope. It was implied that the Bulgarian intelligence agency was acting in collusion with the KGB, though the Soviet organization is not mentioned in the report.
''Every declaration of Agca's, every circumstance and detail, was checked and investigated,'' the Times quotes the report as saying.
Judge Ilario Martella, who will recommend whether the case should be brought to trial, is reported personally to have checked details of the report with trips to Turkey (Agca's homeland), Bulgaria, and the United States. He had been expected to recommend in July whether the case against six Turks and three Bulgarians should go to trial.
Traykov scoffed at the Italian prosecutor's reported suggestion that the assassination attempt might have arisen from East-bloc fears of the consequences for Eastern Europe of the Solidarity trade union in Poland.
''Solidarity,'' said Traykov, ''was not in existence in 1979 when, as the prosecutor's report claims, the 'plot' to kill the Pope was under preparation. Moreover, it is obvious to anyone that a successful attempt on his life could have had only the contrary, unintended effect of intensifying opposition to the Warsaw government.''
According to the Times, the report in fact charges that Bulgaria began plotting to kill the Pope in July 1980. At the time of the shooting, Solidarity had not yet reached its peak and martial law was still seven months away.
In defending Bulgaria, Traykov also said he recalls a visit to the Vatican May 24 of this year of a Bulgarian cultural delegation marking a traditional commemoration of the revered Slav saints, Cyril and Methodius, who brought Christianity into Bulgaria. The group included a government minister who, Traykov said, was received by the Pope in the ''intimacy'' of his library.
''Would he receive an official Bulgarian delegation in this way if he thought our authorities were involved in a plot to kill him?'' Traykov asked.
Agca shot and wounded the Pope in St. Peter's Square in Rome in May 1981 and was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder of the Pope in July 1981 . (Sources close to the Pope have been reported as saying he is convinced that Agca's attempt on his life was masterminded by the East bloc.)
The young terrorist's account of alleged Bulgarian involvement began to emerge in May 1982. As a result of Agca's allegations, Sergei Ivanov Antonov, the deputy manager of the Bulgarian state airline office in Rome, was taken into investigative custody on Nov. 25, 1982.
The Bulgarian view of Agca's reversal of his initial story that he acted alone is that, facing a life sentence, he figured (or was persuaded) that he might obtain a police offer of a much-reduced prison term if he talked and cooperated in building up the story of a ''conspiracy'' involving others.
Mr. Antonov has since spent most of his time in prison. Although he has yet to be formally charged with any crime, he has been under interrogation as an alleged accessory. Authorities here in Bulgaria asked the Pope to help secure Antonov's release.
Antonov is, in fact, the only one of three Bulgarians named in prosecutor Albano's report who is still in Rome. The other two, Todor S. Aivasov and Zhelyo K. Vasilev, are in Sofia. Of the six Turks who figure in the investigation, at least three are at present in Italy, should the case come to court. They are Agca, Omer Bagci, and Musa Serdar Celibi.
The fact that Antonov stayed at his Rome post from the shooting until his arrest 18 months later is a major element in the Bulgarian rebuttal and is expected to figure prominently in the case, should it come to trial.
''Antonov had nothing to do with the Bulgarian security service,'' said Traykov. ''Is it likely, moreover, that if he did and was in any way at all involved with Agca he would sit patiently around waiting to be exposed? He could at any time, in a normal way, have found business or personal reasons for going back to Sofia.''
However, it has been argued in the West that Antonov was not a master spy, but rather a low-level figure who happened to be caught while his superiors returned home. The Times (London) has written: ''If (Antonov) had really been deep in the plot to kill the Pope, this oversight (i.e., remaining in Rome) would be inexplicable.''
Traykov also disputes Agca's purported allegation that, three days before the shooting, Agca discussed the assassination attempt with Antonov in the latter's apartment with his wife Rossitsa Antonova and their daughter present. Traykov says it was established that both wife and daughter were in Sofia on that particular day.
The prosecutor's report, on the other hand, has been quoted as saying, ''It is certain and ascertained that Rossitsa did not leave Italy'' on the days that she claimed she was in Sofia.
The Bulgarians complain that the evidence involving Mrs. Antonova and some of Antonov's compatriots in Rome supporting his alibi during vital hours was brushed off by the prosecution because it ''came from communists.''
''Agca's claim that he spent time with Antonov during fixed hours and days has been totally refuted by witnesses whose evidence, however, has been disregarded,'' Traykov said.
There is little in Agca's ''revised'' testimony that is not challenged in detail here. And frequent reference is made to doubts voiced by conservative West European commentators that the evidence could stand up to the test in court.