Political prisoner all set for freedom after 16 years inside prison
Days before his liberty, long-term political prisoner Donato Continente lays out his plans outside prison: to volunteer for a rights watchdog, help his inmates in their search for freedom, lead a campaign against the death penalty, a new haircut and a trip to the mall with his family.
BY DABET CASTAÑEDA
On June 28, Donato Continente, alleged assassin of U.S. Col. James Rowe, should be a free man.
“I’ve packed my things,” Continente said in a letter to this writer. Dated June 16, the letter was handed by his wife, Imelda, during a press conference held June 17 to announce his release.
Continente was arrested June 16, 1989 by military intelligence operatives at the Vinzon’s Hall of the University of the Philippines (UP) campus in Diliman, Quezon City. At the time of his arrest, he was working as a staff of the UP campus paper, Philippine Collegian. He was also a community organizer for the youth group Kabataan para sa Demokrasya at Nasyonalismo (Kadena or Youth for Democracy and Nationalism).
Rowe, a top intelligence officer attached to the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (Jusmag), which has a history of counter-insurgency in the Philippines, was gunned down by a group of assassins in April 1989. The colonel’s execution took place amid a series of attempted coups against then President Corazon Aquino and a snowballing movement opposed to the retention of U.S. military bases in the Philippines.
The New People’s Army (NPA) owned up to the assassination of Rowe and denied that Continente was involved.
Despite the NPA admission, the political nature of the alleged crime and the fact that he was tortured to force him to admit to the killing, Continente, along with principal accused Juanito Itaas, was sentenced by the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City to life imprisonment.
Upon review, the Supreme Court in 2000 reduced Continente’s sentence to 12 year years of imprisonment at the minimum to 14 years and eight months, at the maximum. Including the time he was under military detention, Continente would have served 16 years – or two years more than what the high court had set. He has spent 14 years at the maximum security hall of the New Bilibid Prisons (NBP) in Muntinlupa, just south of Manila, where hardened criminals and a few other political prisoners are detained.
The human rights group Karapatan said that Continente’s release had been thwarted twice by the intervention of the U.S. government. He should have been released in 2001 when he had served his minimum sentence of 12 years or the following year when the Ramos government offered amnesty to political prisoners in peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).
But on June 28 this year, Continente would have served his maximum sentence of 16 years. Marie Hilao-Enriques, secretary general of Karapatan and herself a political prisoner during the Marcos dictatorship, said, “The government would not have any legal or moral ground to continue his incarceration. He should be freed on that day.”
In his letter to this writer, Continente said that upon release he would probably volunteer for Karapatan or the Society of Ex-Detainees against Detention and for Amnesty (Selda) both of which have assisted him throughout his detention.
As a human rights advocate, he said he would lend a hand to those who are still in prison and campaign for their immediate release. He also plans to lead a campaign for the abolition of the death penalty.