HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
‘I’ve Packed My Things’
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
“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.
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
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
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.
The NBP’s death
penalty hall, he said, is getting cramped as more people including minors
are meted out the capital punishment. “Halos patung-patong na ang mga
inmates dito na hinatulan ng kamatayan” (The number of inmates
sentenced to die is piling up here).
Like others expecting
to leave prison after a long time, Continente said he has had sleepless
nights. Otherwise, he is thrilled that he would soon be together with his
wife, Imelda, and their six-year old son, Jolo. Imelda is also with
Imelda and Donat - as
Continente is called by friends - met and married in prison. On June 28,
it will be their chance to live together under one roof after 10 years of
In the same press
conference, Imelda told reporters that as a human rights advocate
assisting political prisoners, she is always in high spirits when she sees
detainees being freed.
“Pero doble ang
kasiyahan ko ngayon dahil sa wakas ay sariling asawa ko na ang lalaya”
(But now I’m doubly happy because finally my own husband will be free),
Even Donat’s mother,
Nanay Mila, could not hide her jubilation over her son’s imminent
syempre, pero hindi lubusan dahil meron pa akong isang anak na nawala
dahil sa pagkakulong kay Donato” (Of course I’m happy but not
extremely because I my other son lost his life because of Donato’s
detention), she said.
Nanay Mila was
referring to 17-year old Romulo who died after hitting the pavement.
Military operatives tried to abduct him while on board a bus.
interviews, Continente said that news of his brother’s death reached him
while he was under interrogation. His military captors warned him that
other members of his family would suffer the same fate if he does not own
up to the killing of Rowe.
“Nung mga panahong
yun, kahit pagpatay kay Rizal aaminin ko” (At that time, I would even
admit killing Rizal [the country’s national hero]), he said. After the
release, Nanay Mila said they plan to visit Romulo’s tomb.
A picture of anxiety
also painted the Karapatan office during the press conference. In so many
words, the leaders, staff and Donat’s family dared the Macapagal-Arroyo
government to release the controversial political prisoner without any
“Sana wala ng
pumigil sa paglaya nya” (I hope he would be freed without any
problem), Imelda told the media.
On June 20, Selda
will hold a photo exhibit on political detention at the UP Vinzon’s Hall -
exactly where Continente was abducted 16 years ago.
While everyone is
busy preparing for a big coming home party for Continente, Imelda said her
husband is also busy packing his things, doing rounds at the detention
halls of the NBP to bid goodbye to his inmates who, he said, have become
his family inside prison.
Asked what surprise
he plans to give to his father as soon he is released, Jolo said, “Ipapasyal
ko si papa sa mall” (I will take Papa to the mall).
He has also one final
thing to do before the big day – to have a new haircut. Bulatlat
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© 2004 Bulatlat
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