Continente free, denies killing Rowe

- Edu Punay -
Alleged communist assassin Donato Continente woke up at dawn and started packing his things inside his cell at the maximum security compound of the New Bilibid Prisons (NBP) yesterday — the day of his release after having completed a 14-year sentence.

Up to now however, the 43-year-old Continente denies any role in the ambush of US army Col. James Nicholas Rowe on April 21, 1989.

"I’m innocent. I was a victim of abduction and torture, forced to admit to a crime I did not commit," he said after stepping out of the National Penitentiary in Muntinlupa City accompanied by his wife and six-year-old son.

And if it weren’t for the series of brownouts in the 1980s, Continente said he would have gone through the torture of electric shock supposedly in the hands of government agents.

"The agents tried to apply electric shock on my body, but it did not work because of the brownout. Iyung mahahabang brownout nakatulong sa akin (Those long brownouts we had back then helped me)," he said.

He said this happened during his initial detention at Camp Crame in Quezon City after he was arrested on June 16, 1989.

As an alternative, however, investigators used the "water cure" treatment on him — a method of torture used by Japanese occupation forces to extract information from prisoners during World War II.

The agents nonetheless got nothing out of him — no confession, no information, said Continente, who claimed the police wanted him to admit that he was part of the communist rebel team that monitored Rowe’s movements.

"My younger brother also died when he jumped from a moving bus to elude military intelligence operatives who hounded my family to force me to admit to the killing," he lamented.

Clutching a certificate of discharge from the Bureau of Corrections and a bag of clothes, Continente greeted freedom and was hugged tightly by his wife Imelda and son Jolo.

No tears were shed, only signs of excitement and happiness as the family reunited.

A small group of human rights activists welcomed him with placards, handshakes and hugs.

Continente, in an orange shirt that read, "Free all political prisoners," said he planned to work for the release of about 260 detainees, including another activist convicted for Rowe’s murder, Juanito Itaas, aka Ka Juaning.

The communist New People’s Army claimed responsibility for the attack on Rowe on that fateful day 16 years ago. Rowe was a senior officer at the Joint US Military Assistance Group, which provides training and logistical support for the Philippine military.

Rowe, a native of McAllen, Texas, was a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was held in a cage for five years by the communist Viet Cong until he escaped in 1968. He wrote a book about the ordeal titled "Five Years to Freedom."

Continente and co-defendant Itaas, who has admitted to being an NPA member, were sentenced to life in prison in 1991. Upon review, the Supreme Court in August 2000 affirmed Itaas’ sentence but reduced Continente’s to 14 years after establishing he was only an accomplice.

The two men were caught at the center of diplomatic wrangling between Washington and Manila. US officials opposed early release or pardon, but the Philippine government has been under pressure to release them as demanded by communist guerrillas in peace talks.

Sources said Continente’s release was agreed upon by the government peace panel and the communist’s political arm, the National Democratic Front, during the preliminary talks held in Oslo, Norway from Feb. 10 to 14 in 2004.

The US government said it has accepted the Supreme Court decision, although it noted the sentence on Continente was "too short."

"The murder of Col. Nicholas Rowe, who was helping the Philippines fight terrorism, was an appalling crime. While we believe that 14 years is too short for such a crime, we accept the action of the Philippine judicial system," the US Embassy in Manila said yesterday in a statement.

On the other hand, the US Embassy said that it was contented with the punishment for Itaas.

"We know that the real murderer, Juanito Itaas, will continue to serve the life sentence," the embassy said.

A new life

Although his face reflected jubilation as he stepped out of the main gate of the national penitentiary at exactly 8:30 a.m., Continente admitted that his passion to fight for human rights remains, and that he would not turn his back on activism.

"I would probably be an active volunteer in a human rights organization. There is a need for us to continue to call on the government to be true to its promise to free all political prisoners," Continente said when asked by reporters what would keep him busy as a civilian.

He also said his stay inside the NBP has even strengthened his belief that there is great injustice to poor people in this country.

"You would really sympathize with other convicts inside here. Most of them were convicted because they could not afford good lawyers," he lamented.

Continente has revealed that Itaas also asked his help for his immediate release.

He said they already have a commitment to help each other get out of jail. There are 38 other political prisoners left inside the NBP.

Continente said he would miss his cellmates and fellow political prisoners, who gave him a simple farewell celebration on the eve of his release.

He added he would even miss the prison’s officials and guards whom he described as "very professional and caring."

While he was in prison, Continente recalled key events such as his role in the creation of two organizations — Pluma, a group of writers where he served as founding president, and Kulay, a multicultural group of inmates with similar beliefs.

Upon his release, Continente’s parents Romulo and Milagro were there to fetch their son.

Asked if they favor their son’s plan to get back to activism, they said it’s up to him.

Continente left the NBP at around 9 a.m., ready to take another chance at freedom with his family in their new house in Cavite.

He had been qualified for parole since 2001 after serving the minimum sentence of 12 years and six months for Rowe’s death, but efforts for his freedom were futile as the US embassy reportedly lobbied against it.

NBP officials have stressed that the former rebel has maintained a good record while inside the penitentiary and has been recommended for parole several times in the past.

Prison Chaplain Msgr. Bobby Olaguer said Continente has never been involved in any unwanted incidents inside the NBP and was able to maintain harmonious relationship with fellow inmates, including the jailed rightists.

"Mabait si Donat (as Continente was fondly called at the NBP). Marunong kase sila ng acupuncture kaya yung mga may sakit sa kanila nagpapatulong. Ako nga rin nagpagamot minsan sa kanya (Donat is good-hearted. He, along with some others know about acupuncture and those feeling ill seek their help. I myself come to them)," Olaguer told The STAR in a separate interview.

Continente has admitted that respecting other people’s principles and beliefs is one of the most significant things he had learned inside the national penitentiary.

"Siyempre naging mas malapit din tayo sa Diyos. May mga paniniwala tayong nagbago at meron din namang hindi
(Naturally I became closer to God. There are some beliefs I have that changed and there were others that didn’t)," he said in an earlier interview. He did not elaborate. – With Perseus Echeminada, Pia Lee-Brago, AP

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