Suspected U.S. Colonel Assassin Donato Continente: Free At Last?

Twice his impending release was blocked by the U.S. government. In June this year, he would have served his maximum prison sentence but will the gates of freedom finally open for political prisoner Donato Continente?


A political prisoner – one of the alleged assassins of an American colonel in 1989 – expects to be free in June from the National Bilibid Prison (NBP or national penitentiary) after serving his maximum sentence.

Juanito Leopando, superintendent of the Bureau of Corrections (Bucor) told Bulatlat last week that the prisoner, Donato Continente, 42, will definitely be released on June 28 this year.

Silvestre Bello III of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) also said that ordinarily any person who has served his or her sentence should be released.

“There is no way to legally hold a person as long as that person has served his sentence,” said Bello, a former justice secretary. “Not even the complainant can defer Continente’s release.”

He however said that he is not in a position to say whether Continente will be released in June.

Bello heads the government panel holding peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) which, in return, has been demanding the release of Continente since his arrest in 1989.

Continente was set to be released as early as 1992 when the Ramos government offered amnesty to rebel detainees and again in 2001 when he had served his minimum sentence of 12 years. Twice, however, his impending release was reportedly blocked by the U.S. government.

Community organizer

Continente, a community organizer for the youth group Kabataan para sa Demokrasya at Nasyonalismo (Kadena or Youth for Democracy and Nationalism) and a staff of the Philippine Collegian, the student publication of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, was arrested on June 16, 1989 at the same campus. He and co-accused Juanito Itaas were tagged as the assassins of Col. James Nicholas Rowe, then chief of the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (Jusmag).

Rowe, according to Bert De Belder of the Workers’ Party of Belgium, was a decorated Vietnam war veteran.

The Arlington National Cemetery Website describes Rowe as an “American hero.” He graduated from West Point in 1960 and served as a Special Forces Officer (Green Beret). Captured by South Vietnamese communist guerrillas in 1963, he escaped five years.

Rowe was placed in command of the First Special Warfare Training Battalion at Fort Bragg in 1985. He held that post until May 1989 when he was sent to the Philippines.

De Belder wrote that as chief of the Jusmag in Manila, Rowe led a group who trained the Philippine armed forces in counterinsurgency and worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on a strategy to infiltrate the ranks of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed component, the New People’s Army (NPA).

Rowe was assasinated on April 21, 1989 at the corner of Tomas Morato and Timog Ave. in Quezon City. He was the highest U.S. military officer killed in the Philippines, a feat, De Belder wrote, “that the United States can hardly stomach.”

The NPA owned up to the killing of the American diplomat but this fact did not prevent the arrest of Continente and Itaas.

Fall guys

In his court testimonies, Continente said he was subjected to inhumane and unspeakable physical and psychological torture.

Interviewed by Bulatlat inside his prison cell last December, Continente said he was forced to admit to the killing to stop the military from harassing his family. He recalled that a month after his arrest, unidentified armed men accosted his youngest brother, Romulo, while boarding a bus in Quezon City. Romulo, a 17-year old college freshman, tried to escape but fell off the bus and hit his head on the pavement. He died on the spot.

Later, Continente said, his prison custodians warned him that his other family members would suffer the same fate if he did not admit to the crime.

Continente and Itaas were charged with murder and frustrated murder for the killing of Rowe and the wounding of his driver, Joaquin Vinuya.

Both were found guilty by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) and were sentenced to life imprisonment (reclusion perpetua) plus a minimum of 10 years and one day and a maximum of 17 years, four months and one day for the wounding of Vinuya.

Itaas and Continente appealed the RTC decision in 1993. The appealed decision of the RTC Branch 88 modified Continente’s case to that of an accomplice and reduced his sentence from a minimum of 12 years to a maximum of 14 years and eight months for the Rowe killing and a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years and four months for the wounding of Rowe’s driver.

Itaas, on the other hand, had his life sentence retained for the Rowe killing plus another six years as minimum to nine years and six months as maximum for the Vinuya case.

Continente, therefore, had an aggregate sentence of 12 years and six months as minimum and a maximum of 16 years.

U.S. intervention

Writing for the February/March 1995 issue of the U.S. Veteran Dispatch, Ted Sampley said that the U.S. government 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.”

The NPA, in various statements, said however that Rowe was meted out revolutionary justice for his involvement in counterinsurgency operations.

The human rights alliance Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights) also reported that on March 28, 2001, an American official called on President Macapagal-Arroyo to exclude Continente from the list of political prisoners she was planning to pardon as goodwill measure in the renewed peace negotiations with NDFP.

Newspaper reports also stated that former U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Thomas Hubbard also met President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to reiterate the same demand from the White House.

Continente’s lawyer, Edre Olalia of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), said in an interview with Bulatlat that persons entitled for parole or release upon the expiration of the minimum sentence are those whose cases have been reviewed by the Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP) for good conduct and behavior.

Olalia said his client’s good conduct records were submitted to the BPP for review in 2001 before his minimum sentence ended. No action was taken, he said.

The lawyer also said that the Arroyo government has no legal basis not to release his client. “Anything that would hamper or derail my client’s well-deserved release would be suspicious and ridiculous,” he said.

It would be tantamount to illegal detention if Continente will continue to be jailed even after the lapse of his maximum sentence, he said.

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