Jose W. Diokno

February 26, 1922 - February 27, 1987

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Jose W. Diokno: The Scholar-Warrior

Jose W. Diokno


To young Filipinos for whom EDSA 1 and the martial-law dictatorship are now vague if not vanished memories, the name of Jose Wright Diokno—“Pepe” to his friends and contemporaries—may be a distant echo. It is a name often spoken in the same breath as Ninoy Aquino, Tanny Tañada, Chino Roces, Jovy Salonga, Gasty Ortigas, and a few other battle-scarred fighters for freedom, but the association, while uplifting for all, tends to blur the individual in favor of the group, as these unselfish gentlemen would have preferred.

But every hero is individually formed in the crucible of struggle, every heroic act individually chosen. Each hero emerges like a pearl in an oyster from the womb of resistance, their brightest and strongest qualities rising to the surface, the hardened accretions of personal values tested in the arena of public issues.

For a man such as Pepe Diokno—champion of human rights, nationalism, and Philippine sovereignty—heroism was never something to be actively sought by an illustrious few. It was, rather, a collective virtue immanent in the people, a people awakened to their rights, opportunities, and civic responsibilities. It was a hero who led a consistent life of thinking the right ideas and doing the right things—a life which, by its very nature, and despite its search for quietude in a roiling universe, would inevitably court danger and alarm.

Diokno’s was such a life, that of a lover of books who enjoyed nothing more than to lie prone in his library, devouring tome after tome of fiction, education, and legal philosophy, and yet who could not and did not refuse to march in the streets or argue in court as an impassioned combatant for his most cherished principles.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Diokno was never flashy, never sought attention except to pursue or prove a point. He came from a conservative, fairly privileged background, but eschewed flamboyance; he was very well educated and literate in several languages, but forsook bombast for substance. He had a wry sense of humor—demonstrated by a possibly apocryphal story about his deadpan reaction to his reported dourness (“You know me—Diokno, no joke.”)—but he preferred to laugh at the jokes of others. He was, at one time, a Secretary of Justice and then a Senator of the Republic—but he campaigned alone, traveled without bodyguards, and never kept or fired a gun in his political life. When he died, it was in the company of those he held dearest—his family, and his books.

Family background

Pepe graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in De La Salle College in 1937

Many of those books came from the library of his father Ramon, himself a lawyer who rose to be become a senator and later a Justice of the Supreme Court. Ramon’s father, in turn, was the son of a revolutionary general, Ananias Diokno, who had liberated much of Panay from the Spaniards in 1898. The Dioknos hailed from Taal, Batangas, but Pepe was born in Manila on Feb. 26, 1922, to Ramon and his wife Leonor Wright, an American mestiza. (When Pepe’s daughter Maris took this subject up with him and asked him if his lineage therefore made him one-fourth or one-eighth American, Pepe huffed and said, “One hundred percent Filipino!”)

It was a large family; Ramon had married Leonor after the death of his first wife, and there were ten children in the brood (Pepe himself, by coincidence, would also have ten children). As the son of a general who went on to fight the Americans, Ramon Diokno—despite the irony of marrying a mestiza—loathed the United States and forbade the speaking of English in his home. Thus Pepe grew up speaking Spanish, and learned English only from a tutor, as part of his schooling.

Ramon Diokno had been an active lawyer and political figure, serving as a councilor in Batangas and later as a campaign manager for and counsel to President Manuel L. Quezon before serving in the Senate and the Supreme Court. Not surprisingly, he wanted his son Jose to take up law as well; a half-brother of Pepe’s had also finished law, but died young. The boy resisted and, after graduating as valedictorian of his high school class in De La Salle College in 1937, he studied commerce instead. Thanks to repeated acceleration, he graduated at the tender age of 17 also from La Salle, summa cum laude. He took the CPA board examinations—for which he had to secure special dispensation, since he was too young—and topped them with a rating of 81.18 percent.

Self-taught bar-topnotcher

At this point, he could no longer ignore his father’s suasions, and he enrolled in law at the University of Sto. Tomas. He had wanted to go to the University of the Philippines and would later send his own children there, but his conservative Catholic parents would have none of it. As it happened, after just a year of study, the Second World War broke out. Pepe’s father told him to use the time to read, and picked out the books for him to plow through. Pepe’s passion for learning manifested itself immediately; after reading a couple of books, he went to the old man and asked to be tested, but the old man—as Maris Diokno recalls her father’s story—told him, “You either know it or you don’t. Just read.”

He continued reading, and when the war was over he took the bar exams in 1944 under a special dispensation from the Court, since he had never completed his law degree. Again Pepe Diokno topped them with a rating of 95.3 percent—along with Jovito Salonga, who had gone the full route. At this time, his father took ill and asked him to take over the firm.

One of his first important cases, as it turned out, involved defending his father. Ramon Diokno ran for the Senate in the first postwar government in 1946, and won, but he objected to parity rights for American businessmen—a nationalist stance supported by Jesus Lava, Luis Taruc, and the communist-affiliated Democratic Alliance in the Lower House. To punish Ramon, his enemies filed a case of election fraud against him. Pepe rose to his father’s defense, and eventually they won the case, but only at the end of the term in 1949. The father-and-son team must have made quite an impression; Lorenzo Tañada would later recall the young Pepe assisting his father in court, the both of them blessed with phenomenally photographic memories. (After winning his case, Ramon Diokno was then appointed to the Supreme Court, and died in Baguio during one of the tribunal’s summer sessions.)

Young lawyer

Pepe, his wife Carmen, with Pepe's parents, Ramon and Leonor. Wedding photo, 1949.In the meanwhile Pepe’s life took another happy turn. He had met a pretty Bulakeña named Carmen Reyes Icasiano at a party; they had come with their respective dates. But Pepe and Nena soon fell in love, and they were married in 1949, after a two-year courtship. All in all, they would have ten children: Carmen Leonor, Jose Ramon, Maria de la Paz, Maria Serena, Maria Teresa, Maria Socorro, Jose Miguel, Jose Manuel, Maria Victoria, and Martin Jose. The last, Pepe and Nena took in as a two-week old infant in 1967.

Pepe Diokno the young lawyer found corporate law remunerative but boring. He took on some corporate cases, but what he really enjoyed was litigation, the presentation of evidence. Again the passion showed in his eloquence; when he argued a case before the Supreme Court, other lawyers flocked to watch him and to listen to him argue fluently in both English and Spanish.

One of Pepe’s clients and closest friends was Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson, a powerful politician who was poised to run for the presidency. Diokno had successfully defended the outspoken Lacson against a libel charge, stemming from Lacson’s acerbic attacks on his radio program; Lacson also wrote a column for a newspaper that Pepe edited. Maris Diokno remembers how close the mayor became to the family, who were then living in a house in Parañaque, near the Baclaran church. Lacson used to go the house at six in the morning and cook breakfast for everyone before waking them up.

Secretary of Justice

In 1961, Diokno was appointed Justice Secretary by President Diosdado Macapagal. It was a political anomaly, because Macapagal was a Liberal Party stalwart while Diokno was a lifelong Nacionalista. But Macapagal had asked the capable Lacson—despite Lacson’s also being a Nacionalista—to help run his presidential campaign, and Lacson had agreed only on condition that Diokno be appointed to head Justice if Macapagal won. And so it happened.

In any event the union did not last long; in March 1962, Sec. Diokno ordered a raid on a firm owned by American businessman Harry S. Stonehill, who was suspected of tax evasion and bribery, among other crimes. Stonehill reputedly bragged about having big-name politicians in his pocket—but Jose W. Diokno was not one of them. The arrest and the subsequent corruption scandal resulted in an embarrassed Macapagal having to fire several Cabinet members—including, inexplicably, Sec. Diokno, who had found the temerity to arrest Stonehill. “He simply received a letter from the President, accepting a resignation he never submitted,” Maris recalls.

Diokno received death threats because of the Stonehill case; the family had to move important papers from one hiding place to another, and Mayor Lacson assigned them a “driver,” a big, dark plainclothesman from the Manila Police Department.


Campaign flyer, 1983.

In 1963, Pepe Diokno was invited by the Nacionalistas to run for the Senate, and he agreed. He won, and would serve two terms: from 1963 to 1969, and from 1969 until the declaration of martial law in 1972.

For the growing Diokno family, it was a happy interlude. The girls came to his office after school and played in the anteroom until it was time to go. It was a family that prayed the rosary every night, led by Pepe himself. Family outings usually meant piling up in the big black car for a trip to the PECO bookstore, where they would stay all day, poring over books. Whenever Pepe and Nena went abroad, the children got more boxes of books, such as those by Enid Blyton. (The only exception, Maris says, was a brother of Pepe’s who had aged with a child’s mind, and for him Pepe always had a toy.)

Pepe himself loved novels about cowboys and Indians, devouring them while lying flat on his stomach. After lunch and his afternoon siesta, he listened to Tony Falcon, Agent X-44; he also loved kung fu movies. He was generous with money, but he never kept money in his pockets; he gave everything to Nena. So he often found himself strapped for cash, and Nena would have to run after him before leaving the house to make sure his wallet had something in it.

At work in the Senate, Diokno quickly established himself as a nationalist and reformer. But he also pushed to promote Philippine business—on fair terms. The activist-writer Ed Garcia reports that: “On the floor of the Senate, he did not hesitate to articulate his thoughts on economic self-reliance and self-determination in the face of the continued stay of foreign military bases which, he argued, justified foreign intervention in Philippine affairs.

“As lawmaker, he successfully fought the oil companies and masterminded the signing into law of the Oil Industry Commission Bill. He is the acknowledged ‘father’ of the Board of Investments and author of the Investment Incentives Act. He also authored Joint Resolution No. 2, which set the policies for economic development and social progress, and co-authored the Export Incentives Act and the Revised Election Law, among others. For his performance as legislator, Pepe Diokno was cited Outstanding Senator by the Free Press for four successive years beginning 1967.” (Garcia, 57)


Pepe speaking before an audience in the United States

It was typical of Diokno to mince no words in propounding his principles. In a speech before an American audience in 1968—delivered in a bastion of gentility called the Westchester Country Club—he launched into a comprehensive and well-measured but clearly critical speech explaining Philippine economic nationalism. The Philippines, Diokno said, had a dream: “It is the dream to join the modern world without sacrificing democracy to dictatorship, as others are doing; not at the expense of the poor—who have paid the price elsewhere—but of those who reaped the benefits of colonialism and therefore can afford the cost of modernization. Philippine nationalism is determined to achieve this dream. It knows it must restructure the Philippine economy and Philippine society to do so. It knows it will be difficult and painful. All it asks of your people and your government is your understanding and, if you deem it worthwhile, your help to make the process faster, less painful.; and if you do not deem it worthwhile, to leave us alone.

“Let us do it as we believe it must be done, not as you would do it in our place. Let us make our mistakes, not suffer yours…. With your help or despite your hindrance, Philippine nationalism will do the job. No one else can.” (Manalang, 102)

“When he finished,” his editor would note, “there was no applause.”

Martial Law

By the early ‘70s the political climate was darkening, and Pepe Diokno was beginning to sense an alarming shift in the wind, toward authoritarianism. When Marcos suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, Diokno resigned from the Nacionalista Party in protest, and took to the streets with the other members of the Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties (MCCCL). He had cast his lot with the resistance.

And so it happened that when Marcos declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, Pepe Diokno was among those first enemies of the State arrested by the military in the early morning hours of September 23.

They had just prayed the novena, and the young Dioknos were planning to step out for a movie with their friends, but their parents forbade them because of the bombings that had been going on. Just then five or six carloads of armed soldiers arrived to “invite” Sen. Diokno to join them. They had no warrant, and had cut the Dioknos’ phone line. To avoid any more trouble for his family, Diokno changed from his pajamas and went with the soldiers to Camp Crame, accompanied by his young son Mike. He was later moved to Fort Bonifacio, there to join the likes of Ninoy Aquino, Chino Roces, Teddy Locsin Sr., Voltaire Garcia, Nap Rama, Jose Mari Velez, and his other comrades in the civil liberties movement. The country had been plunged into the maw of martial law, realizing his worst expectations.

Solitary confinement

Pepe upon release from the stockades, 1974.

The close-knit Dioknos were devastated by his arrest and imprisonment, especially when he was transferred, along with Ninoy Aquino, to solitary confinement in Laur, Nueva Ecija. “We didn’t know where he had gone,” Maris remembers. “One day the military just came and dropped off his belongings, including his underwear, except his papers, which the military kept.”

Laur brought together two of the keenest minds of the resistance to the dictatorship: Diokno and Ninoy Aquino, ten years his junior, equally impassioned but much more voluble. “Ninoy looked up to Pepe as a kind of older brother,” Maris says. “Ninoy was a raconteur, with lots of stories. Dad was quiet and enjoyed listening and laughing along.” Unlike Ninoy, Pepe’s fight with Marcos never had a personal element; he had never had a face-to-face confrontation with Marcos, and never would.

Solitary confinement would both strain and strengthen the spirit of the two men. Nena Diokno herself was a strong, intelligent woman. “Your mother is really strong and she kept me going,” Pepe would later tell Maris. Pepe Diokno forbade his family to cry in the presence of the guards. “Don’t give the military the pleasure of seeing you in pain,” he told his children. The only exception was his aunt Paz Wilson, the sister of his mother (who had already died by then), who had virtually raised him. She often cried during her visits. Pepe’s solitary imprisonment at Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija (with Ninoy in a separate cell) was a painful moment for the family. Upon seeing their faces as the Diokno family left the visiting area, Cory Aquino and her children prepared themselves for the worst. It was rare to see the Dioknos in tears.

The whole family—even Paz, who was in her 90s—had to submit to a strip search when they came to visit him, and again when they stepped out. The family endured the discomfort and the humiliation to spend precious time with him.


Back in Fort Bonifacio, they brought him books—in French and Spanish, so no one could censor them, as they did the English texts; Pepe and Nena also spoke in Spanish, or one of the children would play the guitar and the rest would sing to drown out their parents’ voices. The family brought in food; he brought out coffee for Nena. When allowed to spend the day in his cell, usually on a Sunday, they would lay out a mat on the grass and all lie there, next to each other. Whenever his roses bloomed he would say his release was nearing; the children harvested peanuts and weeded his tiny garden.

Once, while he was still in prison, Nena brought him disastrous news: the building that housed his library on M. H. del Pilar had been burned in a suspicious fire. He had known that library so well that he could ask for a book and specify from memory which shelf it was on. Thankfully, unknown to him and with uncanny intuition, Nena had earlier moved most of his books to the house, where they lay in topsy-turvy heaps—but safely.

On Sept. 11, 1974—Ferdinand Marcos’s 57th birthday, and almost two years since he was picked up—Pepe Diokno was released from prison. He had never been charged with anything.

Free Legal Assistance Group

Pepe with Tanny Tañada

Sharpened and toughened by his imprisonment, Diokno plunged, to provide legal help to political detainees and other martial-law victims—and long before other prominent lawyers and organizations took up the cause of human rights—he set up the Free Legal Assistance Group. His concerns soon expanded to other causes and constituencies, including tribal groups threatened by exploitation and military atrocities, peasants, social workers, and other activists. He worked with Sister Mariani Dimaranan in Task Force Detainees, which had been set up by the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines to protect the rights of martial law victims and to document cases of torture, summary execution, and disappearances.

He had no fear of being arrested again, and went around and outside the country to speak against tyranny and abuse in the Philippines. But his was no message of gloom and doom; he could see beyond the immediate horizon into a new dawning of freedom. In one of his most oft-quoted speeches, he said:

“And so law in the land died. I grieve for it but I do not despair over it. I know, with a certainty no argument can turn, no wind can shake, that from its dust will rise a new and better law: more just, more human, and more humane. When that will happen, I know not. That it will happen, I know.” (Manalang, 76)

Against the regime’s reasoning that authoritarianism was needed to spur development, he argued:

“Development is not just providing people with adequate food, clothing, and shelter; many prisons do as much. Development is also people deciding what food, clothing, and shelter are adequate, and how they are to be provided. Authoritarianism does not let people decide; its basic premise is that people do not know how to decide. So it promotes repression, not development, repression that prevents meaningful change, and preserves the structure of power and privilege.” (Manalang, 42)

Conversely, as Ed Garcia observed, “(Diokno) did not confine his defense of human rights merely to victims of civil and political rights violations but extended his efforts to promote economic, social, and cultural rights as well.” (Garcia, 66-67)

“Ka Pepe” was often approached for legal help by members of the Communist Party, and he gave help freely; more than once they asked him to join and even lead them, but he consistently declined. In a speech before the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference of the Philippines in April 1985, he argued forcefully and cogently for the legalization of the Communist Party, maintaining that “It is unjust to prosecute a person for his political beliefs.” (Manalang, 53) But he refused to believe in the necessity of armed struggle. “There were not very many among those who suffered during the long period of martial law who believed that the dictatorship could be overthrown without resort to arms,” Garcia notes. “What singled Pepe Diokno out was that he not only believed it was possible to do so but that more than anything else he worked relentlessly to build an active resistance of citizens that was necessary to make it happen.” (Garcia, 67)

People Power

To this end, in March 1983, he co-founded KAAKBAY (the Movement for Philippine Sovereignty and Democracy). It took on issues such as elections, the US military bases, and other nationalist concerns. As immersed as he had long been in the struggle for human rights and civil liberties, the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in August 1983 further spurred his involvement in a broadening network of resistance groups, including the Justice for Aquino, Justice for All (JAJA) movement, and the Kongreso ng Mamamayang Pilipino (KOMPIL).

When the inevitable happened and EDSA 1 erupted in February 1986, Pepe—ever the thinking man—was initially doubtful. “He refused to go when this happened in EDSA,” says Maris. “There was a feeling that this was a military attempt to save their necks and the people were simply being used to cover that action.”

Even when he later agreed to serve the Aquino government as chairman of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights and chairman of the government panel in charge of negotiations with rebel forces, he never forgot the need for vigilance, reminding his countrymen that: “Above all, we can strengthen the President by pointing out what she is doing that is wrong. I think we weaken her if we support everything she does even when we do not agree with that she is doing. Yes-men are not compatible with democracy. People expect our President and public officials to make mistakes—but of course, to correct them as soon as they are convinced that they have erred. How can they know they have erred, if we do not tell them so?” (162)

As he had feared, the fairy-tale unity of what Maris (as Dr. Ma. Serena Diokno, the professor of history) would describe as “someone who was for agrarian reform sitting next to someone who would refuse to give up their land sitting next to someone who simply wanted US nuclear weapons and the bases out, next to someone who said we need the Americans” soon unraveled. These contradictions and tensions tragically exploded in what would be known as the “Mendiola Massacre” of Jan. 22, 1987, during which 15 peacefully protesting farmers were shot dead by government troops practically at the doorsteps of the Palace. In deep disgust and even greater sadness, Jose W. Diokno resigned from his two positions. “It was the only time we saw him near tears,” Maris says.

Death and legacy

By then—even much earlier—Diokno was facing his own death. In 1984, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He had smoked all his adult life, as did Nena. In October 1986, they took him to Manila Doctors Hospital for a blood transfusion; things looked very bleak at that point, and when Maris asked the doctor how much time they had left with him, he told her “a matter of days.” But Pepe himself thought otherwise; “I know I’m dying,” he said, “but not just yet.” He had the transfusion stopped and asked to be brought home; he didn’t want to die in the hospital.

He lived for four more months. They had brought him down to lie among his books, which was where he died, in peace and free of pain, at 2:40 am on Feb. 27, 1987. He had just turned 65.

Disease had ravaged his body, and creeping blindness had stilled his writing, but he was lucid to the last. The children remember him at his hopeful, fighting, smiling best, dreaming of justice on earth, and justice in time. In 1981, in a speech on “The Filipino Concept of Justice,” Jose W. Diokno took that dream in his hands and said:

“Are these standards impossible to meet? If you mean meet completely and immediately, they are. But only yesterday in world time, it was thought impossible to land on the moon. And not too long ago, Aristotle—one of the wisest of men—justified slavery as natural and listed torture as a source of evidence. So standards thought too high today may well turn out to be too low tomorrow. But whether they do so or not is not really important. What Nikos Kazantsakis said of freedom can be said of justice: the superior virtue is not to receive justice, it is to fight relentlessly for it—to struggle for justice in time, yet under the aspect of eternity.” (Manalang, 31)

Upon Diokno’s death, President Aquino declared a period of national mourning, and in 2004, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued an order declaring a national day of remembrance on his 17th death anniversary. Some lawmakers sponsored a bill to rename Taft Avenue to Diokno Avenue. None of those encomiums resonate more than Pepe Diokno’s own words and the strength of his faith in a better future. When he observed a young woman cradling her husband who had been horribly tortured, he saw not despair but hope:

“As I looked at the couple, I saw in them the face of every Filipino; and I knew then that martial law could crush our bodies; it could break our minds; but it could not conquer our spirit. It may silence our voice and seel our eyes; but it cannot kill our hope nor obliterate our vision. We will struggle on, no matter how long it takes or what it costs, until we establish a just community of free men and women in our land, deciding together, working and striving together, but also singing and dancing, laughing and living together. That is the ultimate lesson.” (Manalang, 45)


Diokno, Ma. Serena. Personal interview. 13 December 2005.

Garcia, Ed. “Jose W. Diokno: A Man of Uncommon Valor.” Six Modern Filipino Heroes. Ed. Asuncion David Maramba. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, 1993.

Jose W. Diokno. Filipinos in History. 24 November 2005

Jose W. Diokno. 23 November 2005 .

Manalang, Priscila S., ed. A Nation for Our Children: Selected Writings of Jose W. Diokno. Quezon City: Jose W. Diokno Foundation, Inc., 1987.

Ramon Diokno. 23 November 2005 .

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