Longest-held political prisoner asks Obama for his release

By April Anne Benjamin, VERA Files

Posted at Apr 27 2014 01:10 AM | Updated as of Apr 28 2014 12:24 AM


Juanito Itaas now Photo courtesy of TFD, Phils

The longest-serving political prisoner in the country is appealing for his release to President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to arrive in Manila on April 28.

In his letter to the United States President, Juanito Itaas, who has been detained for more than two decades now in connection with the killing of Col. James Rowe in 1989, then the chief of the Army Division of the Joint RP-US Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG), asked for Obama’s “urgent and personal intervention in the spirit of respect for human dignity as it is understood all over the world.”

“As an advocate of peace and reconciliation among nations, Mr. President, I implore your Christian sense of mercy and compassion as you certainly believe in second chances. Your considerate action to my plea is a key factor for the realization of my renewed life as a law-abiding citizen and as a God-fearing person,” Itaas wrote Obama.

Rowe, the highest-ranking US military officer in the Philippines, was killed in an ambush in Quezon City on April 21, 1989 on his way to work at the JUSMAG office.

The New People’s Army (NPA) took responsibility for Rowe’s murder claiming that the bemedalled Vietnam War veteran was a counterinsurgency expert who supposedly devised a plan to infiltrate the NPA and the Communist Party of the Philippines.

On Aug. 27, 1989, members of the Philippine Constabulary -Criminal Investigation Service and the Regional Security Unit arrested Itaas in Davao City. Another suspect, Donato Continente, was also arrested.

Itaas said he was tortured into admitting his involvement in Rowe’s assassination. He has denied any involvement in Rowe’s killing. During the trial, nine witnesses were presented by the prosecution. But only one identified Itaas as the gunman. On cross-examination, the witness admitted that she did not really have the chance to observe the gunman’s physical features because he was in motion when she saw him, and was holding and firing a long gun.


Juanito Itaas with family and friends. Photo courtesy of TFD, Phils

The Supreme Court in 2005 affirmed an earlier conviction by the Regional Trial Court of murder but ruled that Itaas was the lone principal in the killing of Rowe.

Continente’s case was modified to that of an accomplice. After serving his maximum sentence of 16 years, he was released on June 28, 2005.

Itaas is still serving his sentence of life imprisonment plus at least 10 years for murder, and a maximum of 17 years, four months and one day for the frustrated murder or Rowe’s driver who was with him when he was ambushed in Quezon City.

Itaas has been asking for his release from prison but the U.S. government has consistently opposed his release.

In his letter, Itaas expressed his sympathy to Rowe’s family and loved ones and to the American people and others who were also hurt and violated. “Like them I suffer the same agony of being separated from my loved ones. I have suffered more than enough.”

Itaas cited one of Obama’s guiding principles which is “A strong nation is made up of strong families.”
“Every family deserves the chance to make a better future for themselves and their children. I know that strong families will always be front and center of your agenda, Mr. President,” he said.

Itaas told Obama that his most cherished and persistent wish is “to be a full-time father to my son and two daughters.”

“My children never experienced what a normal and happy family life is all about,” he said.

None of his children – Jarel, 18, Abbie, 11, and John John, 9 – have known what it is like to have a father at home. They were all conceived during his wife Glenda’s conjugal visits at the New Bilibid Prison.

“Being a good and responsible father to your two lovely daughters, here I am, a father also who desires to provide, inspire and support my children with the help of my wife; and by doing so I can be an instrument to have a strong family despite a life-threatening illness that affects my health. This is now my only goal and motivation in life. By God's grace, your valuable help and crucial intervention will help me succeed in this humble aspiration,” Itaas appealed to Obama.

The Philippines is Obama’s last stop in his weeklong Asian Trip. His first stop was Japan, followed by Korea and then Malaysia. His trip was originally scheduled last quarter of 2013 but this was postponed because of the U.S government shutdown caused by the failure of Congress to enact legislation appropriating funds for fiscal year 2014.

Security is expected to top the agenda in Obama’s talk with President Aquino. The PH-US Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation which would allow U.S. armed forces to set up facilities within military camps in the Philippines is expected to be signed during the Obama visit.

(The author is a University of the Philippines student writing for VERA Files as part of her internship.VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)