Longest-held political prisoner longs for freedom
On Political Prisoners
Wednesday, 29 December 2010 11:27

Source: Yahoo! Southeast Asia Editors – December 24th, 2010

By Jonal Javier and Ana Rita Supan, VERA Files and Task Force Detainees of the Philippines
For Yahoo! Southeast Asia

Christmas is a time for coming home. And so it came as no surprise when most of the health workers belonging to the “Morong 43” were released on December 10, Human Rights Day. Less than two weeks later, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, a military officer charged with leading a coup against the government, was likewise freed after years of imprisonment.

Still detained

A lesser-known political prisoner also awaits freedom. His name is Juanito Itaas. He is one of more than 200 Filipinos still languishing in jail for offenses related to political crimes.

Most Filipinos would not know who Itaas is. But the most important American officials in the Philippines would.

That is because Itaas was accused of killing 21 years ago Col. James Rowe, then the chief of the Army Division of the Joint RP-US Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) and the highest-ranking US military officer in the Philippines.

Since his arrest in 1989, Itaas has been in jail as the longest-serving political prisoner. He has denied his involvement in the killing of Rowe and attempts have been made by his family and friends to release him from prison. But the reluctance of the Philippine government—as well as reported pressure from the US—has been keeping Itaas in prison.

Rowe was a member of the elite Green Beret Special Force during the Vietnam war. In the 1960s, he survived captivity for more than five years in the hands of Vietnamese guerrillas.  But he would meet his death on April 21, 1989, in the hands of communist assassins in a country vaunted as America’s staunchest ally in Asia.

Along with his driver Joaquin Vinuya, Rowe was on his way to the JUSMAG compound in Quezon City when his car was ambushed at the corner of Morato Street and Timog Avenue. Gunmen aboard an old-model Toyota Corolla fired at his car, instantly killing Rowe and seriously wounding Vinuya.

NPA and CPP claims

The New People’s Army (NPA), the armed group of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), claimed responsibility for killing Rowe. It regarded him as a counterinsurgency expert who, along with the US Central Intelligence Agency, supposedly devised a strategy to infiltrate the CPP and NPA.

A hunt for the assailants led to the arrest of Itaas in Davao City on August 27, 1989. Another suspect, Donato Continente, was arrested separately.

Salt-of-the-earth roots

The son of a part-time pastor of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, Juanito—or Nitoy—was one of 10 children who lived in Barangay Sinuron, Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur. The family’s main source of livelihood was tending root crops, corn and coconuts.

When Itaas was 15 years old, he worked in a shoe factory where he stayed for two years. It was while he sold tapes, radios and textiles in a mining site in Davao del Sur that he saw the condition of the miners.

For every ten sacks of ore dug by the miners, only three remained with them.  Six went to the owner of the tunnel and one to the soldiers positioned at the entrance. In 1981, Itaas became a full-time organizer among the miners.

Fateful night

One night, on August 27, 1989, Itaas was onboard a jeepney when a vehicle cut across its path along Lizada Street. Several men alighted from the vehicle and announced a holdup.  Another passenger who was in the jeepney with Itaas suddenly held his arms tight. The man was later identified in the newspapers as Constabulary 2nd Class Camilo Maglente.

Itaas struggled but men from another vehicle pointed their guns at him and bound his legs and arms. He was blindfolded and thrown into the back of a van. Itaas would find himself in a military camp where he was held for questioning.

The interrogation continued the following morning. Because Itaas could not answer the questions, his interrogators began torturing him.

Handcuffed at the back and his mouth covered with a masking tape, Itaas was dragged to a vehicle where his captors took turns beating him up. A plastic bag was placed on his head and held tightly to induce suffocation, causing Itaas to black out.

When he regained consciousness, the blows continued until he admitted to everything that his interrogators were accusing him of.

Itaas’s captors were reportedly members of the then Philippine Constabulary-Criminal Investigation Service and the Regional Security Unit. The team was headed by a Lt. Cesar Mancao.

Years later, Mancao would figure in an infamous case. Now a senior superintendent at the Philippine National Police, Mancao would get involved in the case concerning the disappearance of publicist Salvador “Bubby” Dacer and his driver, Emmanuel Corbito.

Prize catch

Following an interrogation, Itaas was presented to the media as the government’s prize catch. He remembered that when his blindfold was removed, flashbulbs blinded his eyes.

He was then taken to Camp Crame in Quezon City where he was kept in solitary confinement for a week. It was his first time to be in Metro Manila. His wife Glenda would be able to visit him two months after his arrest.

Itaas was charged with murder and frustrated murder for the killing of Rowe and the wounding of Vinuya. No preliminary investigation was conducted before the filing of charges in the regional trial court.

Itaas retracted the statements he made in Davao, saying he was tortured into making them. Continente, the other suspect in the Rowe killing, also failed to identify him.

On trial

During the trial, nine witnesses were presented by the prosecution.  But only one identified Itaas as the gunman. On cross-examination, the witness admitted that she did not really have the chance to observe the gunman’s physical features because he was in motion when she saw him, and was holding and firing a long gun.

Aside from this, the only evidence presented against Itaas was his supposed confession, in which he purportedly admitted being part of an NPA hit squad that was responsible for the Rowe killing. The confession was signed in the presence of a lawyer, a certain Atty. Felimon Corpuz, who later admitted in court that he was a retired military lawyer and that he was summoned not by Itaas but by the CIS to represent the prisoner.

Despite all this, the court decided against Itaas. He and his co-accused, Continente, were found guilty. Their prison terms included life imprisonment plus at least 10 years for murder, and a maximum of 17 years, four months and one day for frustrated murder.

The accused appealed their case which reached the Supreme Court. On Aug. 25, 2000, however, the high court affirmed the conviction of Itaas and ruled that he was the lone principal in the killing of Rowe.

Continente’s case was modified to that of an accomplice.  His jail sentence was reduced to 12 to 14 years and eight months for the Rowe killing and six months to two years and four months for the wounding of Vinuya.  After serving his sentence, Continente was released on June 28, 2005.

Itaas’s life sentence was retained for the Rowe killing plus another six to nine years and six months for the Vinuya wounding.

When Fidel Ramos became president, Itaas thought he had another chance at freedom. The new president created a committee to review the cases of political offenders, an order that was part of the confidence-building measures being put up to revive peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA-NDF.

Along with this, the National Amnesty Commission (NAC) was formed to receive applications for amnesty for former rebels. Itaas was among those who filed for amnesty.

His attempt, however, would be thwarted. In the February/March 1995 issue of the US Veteran Dispatch, the writer, Ted Sampley, said the US government had told the Philippine government on Jan. 25 that “it remains opposed to the release from jail of the convicted killers of Rowe.”  Washington argued that the two “should not be freed under any government amnesty program because they violated international law by killing a diplomat.”

On Dec. 5, 1995, then U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte wrote Manuel C. Herrera, chair of the National Unification Commission, to say that the US government was objecting to the grant of amnesty because “the assassin has served only a small fraction of his sentence.”  The US also maintained that “as chief of the army branch of the JUSMAG, Colonel Rowe had full diplomatic status.”

Rowe’s widow Susan also formally opposed Itaas’s application for amnesty.  She contested Itaas’s qualification to avail himself of amnesty since he had insisted that he was not a member of the NPA and could not therefore have committed the crime in furtherance of any political end.

Mrs. Rowe said that giving amnesty “would be totally inconsistent with (Itaas’s) protested innocence.”

On April 24, 1995, the Local Amnesty Board recommended the denial of amnesty to Itaas because “acts of terrorists are not considered political delictum (political crimes).”

About six years later, the NAC gave him a “qualified grant of amnesty for rebellion” but denied this for the case of the killing of Rowe.

Family ties

Itaas and Glenda now have three children – Jarel, 15, Abbie, 8, and John John, 6 – all conceived during the conjugal visits at the National Bilibid Prison. None of them know what it’s like to have a father at home. To make ends meet, Glenda put up a small sari-sari store.  The family also gets assistance from human rights organizations.

Glenda has thought of working abroad to meet her family’s financial needs but she could not bear the thought of being away from her husband and children.

She also believes that the US government has a strong hand in the fate that befell her husband.  With a new president in the person of Noynoy Aquino, she is hoping that he would take a more independent position regarding her husband’s case.

Harry Tomas Jr., current US ambassador to the Philippines, has denied that the US government interferes in the Philippine judicial system.

No reply

Early in his detention, Itaas wrote Mrs. Rowe to say that while she has lost a husband, he continues to suffer for a crime he did not commit. He has not received a reply from Rowe’s widow.

Today, the hair on the head of Juanito Itaas has thinned.  His stride has become slow and measured. His voice, once sonorous and strong, has become softer.  The passage of years can do that to a man, especially to the longest-serving political prisoner in the country.

Even at the New Bilibid Prison where Itaas is detained, there is merrymaking during Christmas. While he welcomes his visitors, he tells them about his desire to be released. He has called on President Aquino to pay attention to the plight of all political prisoners and act on their immediate release.

This Christmas, all that Glenda wishes for is for her husband to be freed. An anguished Itaas said, “Napakatagal na, ano pa ba ang gusto nila?  Sobra-sobra na. (It has been so long, what more do they want?  It is too much.)”


VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look into current issues. “Vera” is Latin for truth.

Note: the article is originally posted in

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