The Life and Legacy of Jose “Ka Pepe” Diokno

There is one dream that all Filipinos share: that our children may have a better life than we have had. So there is one vision that is distinctly Filipino: the vision to make this country, our country, a nation for our children.

These are immortal words of Jose “Ka Pepe” Diokno, one of the most eminent figures during the Martial Law period, revered as a brilliant politician, formidable Marcos critic, staunch nationalist, and consummate champion of human rights. To his friends and family, however, he was also a doting husband, a strict yet caring father, and an unyielding friend. His pursuit of a “nation for our children” began when he was young and is still carried on today long after his passing.


Early Life and Career in Law

Ka Pepe was born to Attorney Ramon Diokno and Leonor Wright on February 26, 1922.[1] At a young age, Ka Pepe showed his passion for learning and books. He showcased his aptitude in school, graduating summa cum laude from De La Salle University with a degree in Commerce, at the age of 17. Though the war interrupted his study of law, Ka Pepe was undeterred and studied on his own, initially under the guidance of his father, and eventually topped the Bar examinations even without a law degree.[2]

In the 1940s, Ka Pepe briefly worked for the Philippines Press, along with Teodoro Locsin Sr. and Philip Buencamino III.[3] As a lawyer, he worked with his father, taking over the practice when his father suffered from a heart ailment. With the endorsement of Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson, Ka Pepe was appointed Justice Secretary by President Diosdado Macapagal. This stint was cut short however, as Ka Pepe uncovered the corruption of high-ranking government officials in his arrest of Harry Stonehill, a businessman accused of tax evasion, leading to his eventual “resignation.”[4] This, along with his exceptional law background, led to him being elected as a Senator for two consecutive terms.

Ka Pepe’s commitment to his principles, justice, and human rights, caused him to clash with President Marcos. He openly criticized Marcos and his policies, which often ran counter to the former’s goals as a defender of peasant rights and a consistent critic of government corruption.[5] When he wasn’t in the courtroom, Ka Pepe was often speaking to a crowd of protesters or joining their marches. He eventually formed the Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties (MCCCL), a coalition of civic, religious, labor, student, teacher and activist groups, to protest the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, along with the erosion of civil rights and the intensification of military violence in the country.[6]

On September 21, 1972, the MCCCL organized a massive rally of 30,000 demonstrators, complete with news coverage. The speakers, including Ka Pepe and Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., denounced the excesses of the Marcos administration, urged the protesters to resist, and condemned the rumored plot to perpetuate his stay in power by declaring Martial Law.[7] Prior to the discovery of this plot, Ka Pepe, during a privilege speech in July, warned that Marcos might declare Martial Law to stay in office beyond the end of his term. “No amount of manipulation of the law will enable President Marcos to remain in office legally after that date. Only naked force could achieve it,” he said.[8]

Jose W. Diokno during a press conference at Schipol, Netherlands in 1978. Photo taken from the FGN Collection of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission’s archives

Detention and Opposition to Martial Law

Sure enough, Marcos supplied this naked force. On September 23, 1972, Ka Pepe was arrested at his home in Magallanes without any charges. Following the arrest, his wife Nena contacted Senator Lorenzo Tañada, who filed for a petition for habeas corpus, to no avail.[9] On March 12, 1973, Ka Pepe and Sen. Benigno Aquino were taken from their cells in Fort Bonifacio and flown to Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija, where they were kept in solitary confinement until April 11, 1973. The Supreme Court granted Nena’s petition for her and the children to see her husband. The visit, the only one during isolation in Laur, took place on April 8, 1973.[10]

Separated by two sets of barbed wire, Ka Pepe and his family were given only ten minutes together during the visits.[11] As he was being held incommunicado, Ka Pepe had lost a significant amount of weight due to the conditions of his detainment. In the days he was not allowed outdoor privileges, Ka Pepe wrote poems for his children, walked in circles, and practiced yoga in his cell.[12] He was kept for approximately thirty days in Fort Magsaysay, spending a brief period of it with fellow detainee and Martial Law oppositionist Ninoy Aquino, before being transferred to Fort Bonifacio. Throughout his time in detention, no charge was formally filed against him. His long-standing petition for habeas corpus also went unheard.[13]

Ferdinand Marcos eventually ordered Ka Pepe’s release, along with many other political prisoners against whom no charges were ever filed, on September 11, 1974 as an act of “executive clemency.”[14]

Jose W. Diokno and his wife Carmen, upon the Senator's release from detention, September 1974. Photo and caption taken from Jose W. Diokno’s Facebook page at


After Release and Work with FLAG

Ka Pepe’s two-year imprisonment took a toll on his family financially. His income diminished, and his prestigious law office in Ermita was burned down shortly after his arrest, further affecting his work. To make ends meet, the family was also forced to sell their house and move to Quezon City.[15] Despite their struggles, Ka Pepe committed to helping out others who fell victim to martial rule. Along with fellow lawyers and Martial Law critics Lorenzo “Ka Tanny” Tañada and Joker Arroyo, Ka Pepe founded the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), a group of human rights lawyers dedicated to protecting civil liberties and defending the unjustly detained.

FLAG worked with the TFDP (Task Force Detainees of the Philippines) to document human rights abuses and to offer free legal services to political prisoners, indigenous leaders, student activists, laborers, and many others persecuted by the government.[16] International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and United Nations human rights agencies consulted FLAG and Ka Pepe, helping expose to the world the impact of the dictatorship on the rights of ordinary Filipinos. When asked what compelled FLAG to pursue its goals, lawyer Rene Saguisag once explained that “the psychic satisfaction of doing what you were convinced was right, and also for the future of your children, that was the lift of the driving dream that animated [their] group.”[17] It was apparent that Ka Pepe’s vision of a “nation for our children” resonated among his colleagues as well.

As part of FLAG, Ka Pepe reached out to many even beyond the courtroom. From 1976 to 1977, during the height of the anti-Chico Dam struggle in the Cordillera, the military arrested leaders and members from the indigenous communities of Kalinga and Bontoc, leaving them vulnerable to the aggressive tactics of the military and the government. Ka Pepe personally provided counsel to the detainees and negotiated for their release by April to June 1977.[18] He would also assist the Kalingas in the investigation and calls for justice for the murder of their chieftain Macli-ing Dulag in 1980.[19]

In 1981, an incident occurred in Daet, Camarines Norte where four protesters were killed, and fifty others wounded, as they were intercepted and shot at by members of the Philippine Constabulary (PC). Two of the march organizers, J. Antonio Carpio and Grace Vinzons-Magana, were also arrested by the PC.[20] Ka Pepe, along with Chino Roces, led a fact-finding mission to investigate the massacre and offered support for the organizers. Ka Pepe later took custody of the two as lead counsel, along with twenty other lawyers from FLAG and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP). Their efforts, along with numerous protests and petitions paid off, as Carpio and Vinzons-Magana were eventually released.[21]

In 1982, parish priest Fr. Brian Gore and several parish workers in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental were arrested for their alleged involvement in the ambush-murder of Mayor Pablo Sola. They had been previously jailed on charges of possession of illegal explosives and firearms and of inciting rebellion. Despite the New People’s Army (NPA) claiming responsibility and the military having captured two guerrillas who admitted participation, the case against the “Negros Nine,” as they were called, was pursued. The defense council for the Negros Nine were Ka Pepe, Juan Hagad and Francisco Cruz, who meticulously picked apart the contradictory testimonies of the military witnesses. The case dragged on, as the court and authorities refused dismissal and bail for the nine, but the prosecution eventually relented, lacking evidence to pin guilt on them.[22]

In many of his other cases, Ka Pepe’s imposing presence was enough to intimidate judges and opposing prosecutors. He continued helping peasants, workers and political detainees, sparing no expense to travel to far-flung provinces to represent them in court without asking for any compensation in return.[23] The same devotion to human rights radiated from FLAG members across the country, as they organized themselves in various provinces, providing free legal counsel to victims where human rights violations were rampant. Due to the nature of their work, at least twelve FLAG lawyers were killed, and many more were harassed during martial law.[24] One tell-tale sign of tyranny reveals itself when the defenders of the defenseless become victims themselves. Fortunately, FLAG lawyers managed to find strength in their collective advocacy of human rights. FLAG started with a handful of volunteers but by 1987, they had 300 lawyers in 43 provinces.[25]

Ka Pepe joined the nationwide protests against the Marcos dictatorship, opposing it in his capacity as chairman of the Civil Liberties Union of the Philippines from the 1970s to the 1980s.[26] He also formed and headed KAAKBAY (Movement for Philippine Sovereignty and Democracy) and was eventually elected President of BAYAN (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan) in 1985.[27]

Ka Pepe, along with Lorenzo “Ka Tanny” Tanada Jr. with Chico elders in 1980. Photo taken from the Cordillera Peoples Alliance Facebook page on May 31, 2021 at
Former Senator Jose "Pepe" Diokno speaks at a seminar on the movement for the boycott of the presidential election in 1981, led by PROPEL (Protestant Oppose Presidential Election). Caption translated from Dutch to English. Photo and caption from the Picture Categories 1-10.9 box of the Filippijnengroep Nederland (FGN) Collection of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.
Ex-Senator Jose "Pepe" Diokno in 1984 shows that he is in favor of a boycott of the upcoming presidential election, as witnessed by the logo on his baseball cap. Caption translated from Dutch to English. Photo and caption from the Picture Categories 1-10.9 box of the Filippijnengroep Nederland (FGN) Collection of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.
Ka Pepe Diokno during a demonstration in Luneta Park in 1985. Photo by Leo Bagwis Escalanda. Taken from Jose W. Diokno’s Facebook page at

Human Rights in a New Administration and Beyond

The end of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 marked a new beginning for the road to upholding human rights. The creation of the 1987 Philippine Constitution included the establishment of a Commission on Human Rights (CHR), in which Ka Pepe was made chairman.[28] Despite working with the Aquino administration, Ka Pepe remained consistent in his devotion to justice, saying that instead of supporting a president despite all their wrongs, correcting their mistakes would bring about a stronger and more capable leader.[29]

Ka Pepe was tasked to lead the negotiations in peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).[30] On December 10, 1986, which was Human Rights Day, both parties agreed to a 60-day nationwide ceasefire. As the government and the NDFP had different expectations, Ka Pepe proposed a framework for the peace talks, entitled: “Food and Freedom, Jobs and Justice.” This harks back to a 1985 protest against Marcos-run elections, in which Ka Pepe declared, “We need food and we need freedom. We need jobs and we need justice. We believe in free, honest and orderly elections. We do not believe in Marcos-run elections.”[31]

Unfortunately, the peace talks came to a halt when, on January 22, 1987, the tragedy of the Mendiola Massacre occurred. Thirteen farmers were killed, along with many others left injured as alleged anti-riot state forces opened fire on the ten thousand protesters gathered in protest on Mendiola Street.[32] Until today, the victims and the families of the devastating event have not been given any justice. As a sign of protest, Ka Pepe resigned from his position as chairman of the CHR. His daughter, historian Maris Diokno, recalls, “It was the only time we saw him in near tears.”[33] His daughter Socorro also recalls her father in a dispirited state, saying, “I did not fight for this. I cannot, in my conscience, fight for this.”[34]

Ka Pepe spent all his life pursuing his goal – a “nation for our children.” Until the end of his days, he continued to implore the Filipinos to build an ideal country for the future generations to come. Now, the baton has been passed to us, and the question must be asked: could we champion a cause and honor the legacy of Jose W. Diokno? Perhaps Ka Pepe himself has the answer: “No cause is more worthy than the cause of human rights. They are what makes a man human. Deny them and you deny man’s humanity.”

His words still ring as true as ever to this day.


Const. (1987), art. XIII (Phil) Diokno, Jose Manuel. “Love affair with the law.” In “Jose W. Diokno: Fleshing out a legend.” Philippine Daily Inquirer. February 26, 2012. Accessed February 21, 2022.…/jose-w-diokno-fleshing….

“Diokno, Jose W.” De La Salle Alumni Association. Accessed February 21, 2022.…/awardees/diokno-jose-w.

Gavilan, Jodesz. “No Cause More Worthy: Ka Pepe Diokno’s Fight for Human Rights.” Rappler. Sept 21, 2017. Accessed February 21, 2022.…/jose-ka-pepe-diokno-human-rights.

“Isang Pagkilala Kay Sen. Jose W. Diokno.” Atty. Chel Diokno. Accessed February 21, 2022.

“Jose W. Diokno.” Senate of the Philippines. Accessed February 21, 2022.…/former…/jose_diokno.htm.

Mijares, Primitivo. The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, 1976 ed. PDF. Accessed February 21, 2022.…/The-Conjugal…

Ocampo, Satur C. “Jose ‘Ka Pepe’ Diokno, Quintessential Nationalist.” Philstar. February 25, 2012. Accessed February 21, 2022.…/jose-ka-pepe-diokno…

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. “Ka Pepe Diokno: Excellence in Law.” YouTube video, 8:58. February 27, 2012. Accessed February 21, 2022.

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. “Ka Pepe Diokno: The Martial Law Years.’ YouTube video, 13:46. February 28, 2012. Accessed February 21, 2022.

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. “Ka Pepe Diokno and the fight for human rights.” YouTube video, 10:21. February 29, 2012. Accessed February 21, 2022.

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. “Ka Pepe: A Lasting Legacy.” YouTube video, 17:53. March 1, 2012. Accessed February 21, 2022.

Robles, Raissa. Marcos Martial Law: Never Again. Quezon City: Filipinos for a Better Philippines, 2016.

Rosenberg, David A. “Civil Liberties and the Mass Media under Martial Law in the Philippines.” Pacific Affairs 47, no. 4 (1974): 472-484.

Serafica, Raisa. “4 Things to Know About the Mendiola Massacre.” Rappler. January 21, 1987. Accessed February 21, 2022.

“To Sing Our Own Song – Martial Law Documentary.” Produced by Jonathan Isaacs. Narrated by Jose W. Diokno, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1983.

[1] “Jose W. Diokno,” Senate of the Philippines, accessed February 21, 2022,

[2] “Isang Pagkilala Kay Sen. Jose W. Diokno,” Atty. Chel Diokno, accessed February 21, 2022,; “Diokno, Jose W.,” De La Salle Alumni Association, accessed February 21, 2022,; Jose Dalisay Jr., “Jose W. Diokno: The Scholar-Warrior,” February 25, 2011, accessed February 21, 2022, Diokno petitioned the Supreme Court to grant him special permission to take the Bar exam without a law degree.

[3] Ibid.; The Philippine Diary Project, “About Teodoro M. Locsin,” The Philippine Diary Project, accessed February 21, 2022,

[4] “Ka Pepe Diokno: Excellence in Law,” 2:00, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, February 27, 2012, accessed February 21, 2022, He later found that President Macapagal “accepted” his resignation, despite him not having filed for it. Macapagal deported Stonehill, blocking Diokno’s attempt to prosecute him.

[5] Primitivo Mijares, The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, 1976 ed., PDF, accessed February 21, 2022, 249,

[6] “Isang Pagkilala Kay Sen. Jose W. Diokno;” “Ka Pepe Diokno: Excellence in Law,” 8:21. Diokno later resigned from his political party, the Nacionalista Party of President Marcos, following this.

[7] David A. Rosenberg, “Civil Liberties and the Mass Media under Martial Law in the Philippines,” Pacific Affairs 47, no. 4 (1974): 473–74,; Mijares, The Conjugal Dictatorship, 54, 122-123; “Ka Pepe Diokno: The Martial Law Years,” 1:16, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, February 28, 2012, accessed February 21, 2022, The rumors stemmed from the discovery of Oplan Sagittarius.

[8] Mijares, The Conjugal Dictatorship, 362. September 21, 1972 was the date Proclamation No. 1081 was signed, but the declaration of Martial Law did not happen until September 23, 1972. For more information on the date of declaration, see the Official Gazette’s article at:

[9] “Ka Pepe Diokno: The Martial Law Years,” 1:48.

[10] Ed Garcia, “Diokno Defined Courage for the Martial Law generation.” Rappler. September 19, 2017. accessed February 21, 2022.

[11] “Ka Pepe Diokno: The Martial Law Years,” 6:35

[12] “Jose W. Diokno v. Juan Ponce Enrile.” (1973), p 8-9, accessed February 21, 2022

[13] “To Sing Our Own Song – Martial Law Documentary,” narrated by Jose W. Diokno, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1983,

[14] “Juan Dizon and Soledad Ramos, v. Brig. Gen. Vicente Eduardo and Col. Teddy Carian.” (1988); Mijares, The Conjugal Dictatorship, 249-252.

[15] Gerry Lirio, “Carmen Diokno: Remembering an unsung heroine,” ABS-CBN News, August 26, 2019, accessed February 21, 2022,; Mijares, The Conjugal Dictatorship, 263. It was alleged by Primitivo Mijares that Diokno was reportedly compiling documents that could prove Marcos was the real murderer of Julio Nalundasan. After the soldiers could not find the documents in his house and his law offices, Marcos instructed them to burn the latter down.

[16] “To Sing Our Own Song,” 28:42; Raissa Robles, Marcos Martial Law: Never Again (Quezon City: Filipinos for a Better Philippines, 2016), 136-138; “Ka Pepe Diokno and the fight for human rights,” 1:48, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, February 28, 2012, accessed February 21, 2022,

[17] “Isang Pagkilala Kay Sen. Jose W. Diokno;” “Ka Pepe Diokno and the fight for human rights,” 1:48.

[18] Joanna Cariño, “The Chico River Basin Development Project: A Case Study in National Development Policy,” Aghamtao III (1980): 8-9, accessed February 21, 2022,; “Affidavits” (Case Nos. 2014-16-00423, 2014-16-00492, 2014-16-00500, 2014-16D-00051, 2014-2D-00722, Quezon City, 2014), accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission. “Remembering Ka Pepe,” in Philippine Human Rights Update Vol. 4, No. 6 (February 15 – March 14, 1989), 8-9.

[19] Ab Tan, “Tribal Traditionalists Battle Progress,” The Washington Post, July 28, 1980,; Clark D. Neher, “The Philippines in 1980: The Gathering Storm,” Asian Survey 21, no. 2 (1981): 272,

[20] “Massacre in Camarines Norte,” in “1982 Situationer,” Bicol Concerned Citizens’ Alliance, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines – Bicol Region, and Concerned Citizens for Justice and Peace, 1982, 14-15, accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission; Soliman M. Santos, Jr., Heart and Mind in Bicol, 1975-1993 (40 Selected Activist Writings) (Printed in Pasig: Oragon Publications, 1994), 100-102.

[21] Santos, Jr., Heart and Mind in Bicol, 106-108; G.R. No. L-57439, “J. Antonio M. Carpio and Grace Vinzons-Magana, petitioners, vs. Lt. Col. Edgar Guevarra, as Camp Commandant, Camp Bagong Ibalon, Regional Command V, respondent,” The Lawphil Project, August 27, 1981, accessed February 21, 2022,

[22] “CASE IN FOCUS: The “Negros Nine,” Philippine Human Rights Update-Online, June 19, 2014, accessed February 21, 2022,; Ed Garcia, “Jose W. Diokno and principled politics,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 27, 2018, accessed February 21, 2022,; “Case of the Negros Nine,” Negros Nine Human Development Foundation, Inc., accessed February 21, 2022, Philippine Human Rights Update-Online is the official online publication of TFDP. The Negros Nine were Fr. Brian Gore, Fr. Niall O’Brien, Rev. Fr. Vicente Dangan, Jesus Arzaga, Arnesto Tajones, Lydio Mangao, Conrado Muhal, Peter Cualaes and Geronimo Perez. As two of the priests, Australian Fr. Gore and Irish Fr. O’Brien, were foreign missionaries, the case attracted international attention involving their two home countries. As such, foreign pressure also played a part in their eventual release, but the efforts of Diokno and the defense proved crucial in ensuring that their trumped-up charges never held up in court.

[23] F. Sionil Jose, “Defining greatness, defining Jose W. Diokno,” PhilStar Global, October 3, 2010, accessed February 21, 2022,

[24] Interview with Attorney. Efren Moncupa, Conducted by Lorenzo Jose C. Martinez and Tala Celina U. Batangan, July 17, 2020, interview notes, Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.

[25]Ibid. “Remembering Ka Pepe.”

[26] Hernando J. Abaya, The CLU Story: Fifty Years of Struggle for Civil Liberties (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1987), 125-126.

[27] “Bayan plans protests, expansion despite splits and defections,” Philippine News and Features, Vol. I, No. 34, May 27 1985, accessed from the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission; Belinda A. Aquino, “Political Violence in the Philippines: Aftermath of the Aquino Assassination,” Southeast Asian Affairs, 1984, 269,

[28] Const. (1987), art. XIII (Phil)

[29] Jose Dalisay Jr., “Jose W. Diokno: The Scholar-Warrior,” February 25, 2011, accessed February 21, 2022,

[30] Maria Karina Africa Bolasco, “The GRP-NDFP Peace Talks: Tactical Discontinuities in a Shared Narrative,” Kyoto Review Of Southeast Asia, October 1, 2019, accessed on February 21, 2022,

[31] David Briscoe, “Protesters Plan Strategy Against Marcos,” AP News, May 5, 1985, accessed on February 21, 2022,

[32] Raisa Serafica, “4 Things to Know About the Mendiola Massacre,” Rappler, January 21, 1987, accessed on February 21, 2022,

[33] Satur C. Ocampo, “Jose ‘Ka Pepe’ Diokno, Quintessential Nationalist,” Philstar, February 25, 2012, accessed on February 21, 2022,

[34] Jerome Aning, “Kin, Friends Remember Jose ‘Pepe” Diokno,” Inquirer, February 25, 2012, accessed on February 21, 2022,