[Political Prisoner Longs for Freedom, The Story of Juanito Itaas, Part 1 was posted last July 14, 2011. Click here to read the first part of this featured story.]
by Task Force Detainees of the Philippines
Stumbling blocks and pressure from the U.S. government
Nitoy was with his wife Glenda before he was accosted. When Nitoy still had to go somewhere, Glenda stayed behind. That night, Nitoy did not come home. Glenda did not worry since she thought that Nitoy might have had attended to something important. The next day however, she received information from one of their relatives that according to the news, Nitoy was arrested. His whereabouts was not mentioned. Glenda did not know what to do. While she asked help from different people and organizations, she started to lose hope that she will still find her husband. She prepared herself for the worst – that Nitoy might have been salvaged.
Glenda later learned that Nitoy was brought to Manila, but it was still two months after his arrest when Glenda was able to visit him. It was the Kapisanan para sa Pagpapalaya ng mga Bilanggong Pulitikal sa Pilipinas (KAPATID) that helped her. Glenda eventually became a staff of KAPATID in 1991 until 1997.
When Fidel Ramos assumed the presidency in 1992, there seemed to be a ray of hope when his government wanted to talk peace. The government sent signals to the CPP-NPA-National Democratic Front (NDF). Efforts to revive the peace talks materialized. Ramos issued Amnesty Proclamation Nos. 347 and 348. Republic Act 1700 or the Anti-Subversion Law was repealed. A presidential committee was created to review cases of alleged political offenders and recommend their release, bail or pardon. This was done through the issuance on August 11, 1992 of “Guidelines for the Grant of Bail, Recognizance or Pardon of Persons Detained or Convicted of Crimes Against National Security, Public Order and Violations on the Articles of War” as part of confidence building measures to promote a climate conducive to peace.
A most significant decision in the early days of the Ramos presidency was the amendment of his amnesty proclamation to include the creation of the National Unification Commission (NUC) in response to the clamor of a growing number of peace advocates for the government to address the concerns of “unpeace” within a larger and participative process.
The NUC was an ad hoc advisory body mandated by Executive Order No. 19 and signed by Ramos on September 1, 1992. It was tasked to formulate and recommend to the President a viable general amnesty program.
Nitoy filed an application for amnesty under Proclamation No. 347 through which the National Amnesty Commission (NAC) was formed to receive and process applications for amnesty of former rebels.
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 January 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 December 5, 1995, then U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte wrote then NUC Chairperson Manuel C. Herrera to submit the view of the U.S. government on the amnesty application of Nitoy for consideration by the Commission. The U.S. government registered its “opposition to the grant of amnesty to Juanito Itaas” on the ground that to do so “after the assassin has served only a small fraction of his sentence, would substantially undermine the principles and intent of the IPP Convention.” The premise of this position is that “as chief of the army branch of the JUSMAG, Col. Rowe had full diplomatic status”.
The IPP Convention refers to the 1973 Convention on Protection and Punishment of Crimes against Internally Protected Persons to which the Philippines acceded to on November 26, 1976. It entered into force on February 20, 1977.
On August 10, 1995, Mrs. Susan Rowe, Col. Rowe’s widow, submitted a sworn opposition to Nitoy’s application for amnesty. She contested Nitoy’s qualification to avail of amnesty since he had argued in his appellant’s brief to the Supreme Court that the RTC committed an error in its finding that he was a member of the Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB) of the NPA. Therefore, in not being a member, he could not have committed the crime in furtherance of any political end. Further, Mrs. Rowe contended that giving amnesty “would be totally inconsistent with his protested innocence”. She also stated that “it would be more in keeping with orderly procedure that the Supreme Court be allowed to continue with the adjudication of the case.” Instead of praying for the suspension of Nitoy’s amnesty application proceedings, Mrs. Rowe prayed that the application be denied.
On April 24, 1995, the Local Amnesty Board, seemingly “convinced” by the views of the U.S. government, recommended the denial of amnesty to Nitoy on the ground that “acts of terrorists are not considered political delictum (political crimes) and therefore, “the crime for which the applicant was charged does not fall within the scope of Proclamation No. 347.”
Almost ten months after the Local Amnesty Board’s recommendation, Nitoy submitted his Comment on the Opposition filed by Mrs. Rowe and the U.S. government. He maintained that he is qualified to be granted amnesty and it would not violate the obligations of the Philippine government under the Convention. The government had in fact “investigated, arrested, charged, prosecuted, and convicted” Nitoy, who is now serving sentence in prison in connection with the crimes. Therefore, he had not been given any preferential treatment.
On August 13, 1996, the U.S. government submitted its Rejoinder to said Comment, reiterating that “premature release of Itaas (through an amnesty grant) would run counter to the Convention’s fundamental purpose and objective – i.e., the deterrence of crimes against diplomats through a broad international commitment to punish such crimes in a serious manner.”
In January 2001, the NAC decided on Nitoy’s petition for amnesty. It ruled that “applicant Juanito T. Itaas is hereby given a QUALIFIED GRANT of amnesty for REBELLION constituted by his membership in the CPP-NPA-NDF, but DENIED as to the killing of Col. James Rowe, which he continuously denied having participated in.” Nitoy filed a motion for reconsideration before the NAC on January 27, 2001 which was denied in its Resolution dated March 1, 2001. The Court of Appeals (CA-G.R. No. SP 64575) affirmed the NAC Resolution on September 15, 2003.
Could it have been mere coincidence that around those months, there came out unconfirmed reports that an American official called former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to exclude Nitoy and Continente from the list of political prisoners whom she was planning to grant pardon? There had also been news reports about the meeting between former U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Thomas Hubbard and Arroyo where the former reiterated the same demand from the U.S. government.
The NAC Resolution giving Nitoy amnesty for rebellion but not for the murder of Col. Rowe was, according to Atty. Jose Manuel I. Diokno, Nitoy’s legal counsel, contrary to law and jurisprudence. His petition stated that “such qualified grant of amnesty separates and distinguishes the killing of Col. Rowe from rebellion, in contravention of the Ponce Enrile and Hernandez rulings”.
A couple’s lament
Despite the years of struggle, Nitoy and Glenda tried to remain strong, with each other as their source of strength. They now have three children – Jarel, 15, Abbie, 8, and John John, 6 – all of whom were conceived during conjugal visits at the NBP. Since Nitoy has been detained for more than 20 years, not one of their children has experienced having him around. To make ends meet, Glenda put up a small sari-sari store. Assistance coming from various human rights organizations also helps.
Glenda herself could not fathom how she manages to sustain their children. She has thought of working abroad, but she cannot bear being away from her kids and Nitoy.
She firmly believes that the U.S. government has a strong hand in her husband’s fate. This Christmas, all she wishes for is for Nitoy to be released and for their children to be with him. She hopes that President Benigno Simeon Aquino III does not give in to U.S. pressure and give more weight to the fact that both Nitoy and he are Filipinos.
On the other hand, it is not very clear to Nitoy whether the U.S. government still has an interest in his case. An anguished Nitoy expressed, “Napakatagal na, ano pa bang gusto nila? Sobra-sobra na.” (It has been so long, what more do they want? It has been too much.)
Consistent with diplomatic practice, the statements issued by the U.S. government officials through the years do not explicitly constitute of any threats or sanctions in case the Philippine government indeed decides to grant pardon or executive clemency to Nitoy.
Current U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas, Jr., during an interview, even denied that the U.S. government gets involved in the Philippine judicial system. According to him, they have not commented [on the issue] nor pressured [anyone]. But they can never excuse what happened to Col. Rowe.
The fact remains that the U.S. government has a great influence to the countries of the world, the Philippines in particular. Any government will have to think, not only twice, but many times, before it decides to do anything that will displease the U.S. government.
Unfortunately, the Philippine government’s desire to remain in the U.S. government’s good graces has been at the expense of one man and his family.
During the early years of Nitoy’s detention, he wrote a letter to Mrs. Rowe. He told her that if she wants justice for what happened to Col. Rowe, then they are on the same boat. He is also crying for justice for himself. Nitoy shared that it is truly sad that Mrs. Rowe lost her husband. But there is not much difference between them – one died while he, though alive, continues to suffer for something he did not do.
Nitoy did not receive any reply from Mrs. Rowe. Though broken and tormented, he remains hopeful that unlike Mrs. Rowe, the new administration will not turn a blind eye on him.
He yearns for the day when he will be wrapped in the warm embrace of his wife and children outside the confines of prison. He longs to breathe the air beyond the cold walls of prison.
Supreme Court, People vs. Continente, Itaas G.R. Nos. 100801-02, August 25, 2000.
Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, Philippine Human Rights Update (various issues)
Task Force Detainees of the Philippines Fact Sheet 89-DVC-ARD-006
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