[Featured Story] Political Prisoner Longs for Freedom, The Story of Juanito Itaas (Part 1)- TFDP
Political Prisoner Longs for Freedom, The Story of Juanito Itaas (Part 1)
by Task Force Detainees of the Philippines
HRonlinePH.com published this article by TFDP in July 2011. We decided to reshare this article one more time in support of TFDP’s #FREEourDEFENDERS Campaign.
Amidst the sound of merrymaking, Juanito Itaas addressed the visitors and his fellow inmates during the Paskuhan sa Kampo at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) last year. He called on President Benigno Simeon Aquino III to pay attention to the plight of all political prisoners and detainees and act for their immediate release.
After his speech, a calmer Juanito, more fondly known as Nitoy, approached some of the staff of Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) to chat. His zeal was still very evident, but there seemed to be a tinge of sadness in his eyes, which became more evident when he started to speak. Christmas, after all, is just around the corner, and despite the joy brought about by the visit of relatives and friends during the Paskuhan sa Kampo, the fact remains that for more than two decades already, Nitoy has spent Christmas locked behind the cold bars of his prison cell.
He has been previously recommended for release. But the wheels of fate did not turn in his favor.
Nitoy is one of the ten children of Mamerto and Fausta Itaas of Barangay Sinuron, Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur. Nitoy’s family tended root crops, corn and coconut as their primary source of income. Aside from farming, Nitoy’s father was a part-time pastor of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP).
Those who knew Nitoy said that he has a big heart – helping those in need and standing up for the weak. He also joined mass mobilizations and demanded land for the tillers. When Nitoy was 15 years old, he worked in a shoe factory where he stayed for two years. After which, he sold tapes, radios and textiles in a mining site in Davao del Sur. The idea of social justice was not lost in him as he witnessed the injustices experienced by the miners. For every ten sacks of ore dug by the miners, only three remain with them. Six went to the owner of the tunnel and one to the military positioned at the entrance.
In 1981, Nitoy became a full time organizer. The death of his brother, a guerilla fighter, in 1982 all the more pushed him to continue with his involvement.
In 1984, Nitoy met Glenda, who later became his wife, in Tagum, Davao. In 1986, they got married. They continued to live in Tagum until one fateful day in 1989.
In the evening of August 27, 1989, Nitoy was with a companion and onboard a jeepney along Lizada Street corner Quezon Boulevard in Davao City, when a vehicle cut across their path. Several men alighted from the vehicle and declared a hold up. Nitoy’s companion, later identified in the newspapers as Constabulary 2nd Class Camilo Maglente, suddenly held his arms tight. Nitoy resisted but there was another vehicle whose passengers pointed their guns at him. His legs and arms were bound. He was blindfolded and in a matter of seconds, he was thrown into the back of the van. He was brought to an unidentified military barracks where he was held for questioning. The many different questions thrown at him confused Nitoy.
Based on TFDP documents, Nitoy’s military captors under the Philippine Constabulary – Criminal Investigation Service (PC-CIS) and Regional Security Unit (RSU) headed by then Lt. Cesar Mancao were the ones who tortured him.
The next morning, the interrogation continued, but Nitoy did not provide any information. The interrogators were not able to get any information from Nitoy. Hence, when his arresting officers, Lt. Mancao and a certain Boy Erno of the RSU failed to get anything from him, he was turned over to two unidentified military men where his agonizing experience began.
Immediately after he was blindfolded, handcuffed at the back, and covered at the mouth with a masking tape, the men dragged him into a vehicle. Inside, heavy blows reduced Nitoy into a shapeless heap. His captors also used the “dry submarine” on Nitoy. He eventually blacked out. After he regained consciousness and another round of punches, he admitted everything that was accused of him. The men stopped hurting him.
Nitoy further related that he lost track of the time. He was taken to several places and subjected to intense interrogation. He then remembered that when his blindfold was removed, flash bulbs blinded his strained eyes. He was presented to the media as the government’s prized catch.
A few minutes later, they went to a local airport and took a Manila-bound flight where he was accompanied by Gen. Ramon Montano, military escorts and a number of media. That was Nitoy’s first time to go to Manila. He was then committed at the Camp Crame in Quezon City where he was kept in solitary confinement for one week.
On September 1, 1989, charges of murder and frustrated murder docketed as Criminal Case Numbers Q-89-4843 and Q-89-4844 were filed before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Quezon City, Branch 88, for the killing of Col. James Rowe and the serious wounding of his driver, Joaquin Vinuya. The two cases were filed without preliminary investigation.
On September 8, 1989, Gen. Montano talked to him about his alleged involvement in the Rowe killing. Nitoy retracted the statements he made in Davao. He said he was only forced to admit the accusations against him because of the severe pain that was inflicted on him. Donato Continente, the other suspect in the Rowe killing, failed to identify Nitoy during a brief confrontation.
During the trial, nine witnesses were presented by the prosecution. But only one, a certain Meriam Zulueta identified Nitoy as the gunman. On cross-examination however, Zulueta admitted that her eyewitness identification was based on a single fleeting glimpse of a stranger during a startling occurrence; and that she did not have an adequate opportunity to observe the gunman’s physical feature since he was in motion when she saw him, and was holding and firing a long firearm, thus preventing her from getting a good look at him.
Aside from the testimony of Zulueta, the only evidence presented against Nitoy was his alleged extra-judicial confession, in which he purportedly admitted that he was part of a New People’s Army (NPA) assassination team responsible for the Rowe killing. The confession was signed in the presence of a lawyer, a certain Atty. Felimon Corpuz, who later admitted when he testified in court that he was a retired military lawyer and said he was summoned not by Nitoy but by the CIS to “represent” Nitoy.
Atty. Corpuz also revealed that he was not familiar with the rights of the accused when he was unable to enumerate such rights during cross-examination.
Despite the tenuous and unreliable testimony of Zulueta, the absence of a competent and independent counsel when Nitoy allegedly confessed, and Nitoy’s confession which was made under duress, the trial court rendered an unfavorable decision.
On February 27, 1991, Nitoy and his co-accused, Continente, were found guilty by Judge Tirso D. C. Velasco of RTC-Quezon City Branch 88. They were sentenced to life imprisonment (reclusion perpetua) plus a minimum of ten (10) years and a maximum of 17 years, four months and one day for the frustrated murder. Both appealed the RTC decision in 1993.
On August 25, 2000, the Supreme Court (G.R. Numbers 100801-02) affirmed the conviction of Nitoy and ruled that he was the lone principal in the killing of Rowe. Continente’s case was modified to that of an accomplice. His jail sentence was reduced to 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 Vinuya. Continente therefore had an aggregate sentence of 12 years and six months as minimum and a maximum of 16 years. After serving his sentence, he was released on June 28, 2005.
On the other hand, the life sentence of Nitoy was retained for the Rowe killing plus another six years as minimum to nine years and six months as maximum for the Vinuya wounding.
U.S. Army Colonel James Rowe
The United States government took a great interest in the case of Nitoy. They kept a watchful eye from the time he was arrested to his incarceration and conviction. And it was not difficult to figure out why. Nitoy, after all, was accused, and later convicted for the murder of Rowe, considered to be an American hero.
James Nicholas “Nick” Rowe was a graduate of the West Point Military Academy. He later became a decorated war veteran. He joined the United States Army’s elite Green Beret Special Force and went to Vietnam in the early 1960s. He was one of only 34 American Prisoners of War (POWs) to escape captivity during the Vietnam War. Rowe was assigned as Executive Officer of Detachment A-23, 5th Special Forces Group, a 12-man “A-Team” in Vietnam in 1963. On October 29, 1963, after only three short months in Vietnam, then Lieutenant Rowe was captured by Viet Cong guerillas, along with Capt. Humberto R. Versace and Sgt. Daniel L. Pitzer. Separated from his comrades, Lt. Rowe spent 62 months in captivity with only brief encounters with fellow American POWs. He escaped from his Vietnamese captors on December 31, 1968. He authored the book, “Five Years to Freedom,” an account of his years as a prisoner of war.
Rowe retired from the United States Army in 1974. In 1981, he was recalled to active duty to design and build a course based upon his experience as a POW.
“Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape” (SERE) is now a requirement for graduation from the U.S. Army Special Forces Qualification Course. SERE is taught at the Colonel James “Nick” Rowe Training Compound at Camp Mackall, North Carolina.
He was placed in command of the First Special Warfare Battalion at Fort Bragg in 1985. In 1987, he was sent to the Philippines. Rowe was assigned as Chief of the Army Division of the Joint RP – U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG). He led a group who trained the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) officers on counter insurgency. He worked closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on a strategy to infiltrate the ranks of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the NPA.
By February 1989, Rowe acquired intelligence information that the communists were planning a major terrorist act. He warned Washington that a high-profile figure was about to be assassinated and that he himself was second or third on the assassination list.
On April 21, 1989, while Rowe was on his way to the JUSMAG Compound, his car was ambushed at the corner of Tomas Morato Street and Timog Avenue in Quezon City. Gunmen who were on board an old model Toyota Corolla car suddenly fired at his car. Rowe was instantly killed while Vinuya, his driver, was seriously wounded. The two were initially brought to the V. Luna Hospital in Quezon City. They were later transferred to the Clark Air Base Hospital in Pampanga where Vinuya was confined for four days. He sustained injuries in the head, shoulder and back portion of his left hand.
Rowe was buried on May 2, 1989 in Section 48 of the Arlington National Cemetery. Reports said that he was the highest U.S. military officer killed in the Philippines, a feat “that the United States government can hardly stomach.”
Even though the NPA owned up to the assassination, Nitoy and Continente were still arrested.
[to be continued]
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