“Even if we have to wade through blood and fire, we will be free. We will develop. We will build our own societies. We will sing our own songs.”
At the height of the martial-law dictatorship’s abusiveness and greed, Jose W. Diokno never lost faith in the Filipino people’s ability to overcome hardships and construct a better future.
Considered one of the worthiest senators the country ever had, Diokno was an exemplary public servant and a champion of civil liberties who devoted himself to the collective struggle for democracy, justice and freedom.
He was the son of Ramon Diokno, a nationalist political figure who was associate justice of the Supreme Court at the time of his death in 1954; his grandfather was Katipunan revolutionary general Ananias Diokno of Batangas.
Jose W. Diokno’s intellectual brilliance was manifested early: valedictorian of his high school class, he obtained his commerce degree in 1940 summa cum laude; and shortly after that, at the age of 18 topped the board tests for certified public accountants (so young his license was withheld until he turned 21).
World War II interrupted his law studies at the University of Santo Tomas but he used the time to work in his father’s law office. By special permission from the Supreme Court, Diokno was allowed to take the bar in 1944 even without a law degree. He and Jovito R. Salonga topped the bar exams, both getting the same high score. Many years of outstanding law practice followed.
Appointed to President Diosdado Macapagal’s cabinet as justice secretary in 1962, Diokno caught the public’s attention when his investigation into the dealings of American businessman Harry Stonehill turned up evidence of massive government corruption. But it was Diokno who was forced to resign.
That same year, he ran and won as a senatorial candidate of the Nacionalista Party, to which Ferdinand Marcos belonged. In the Senate, he championed the national interest in important economic legislation and foreign policy. He was on his second term as senator when Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1971, effectively authorizing the arbitrary arrest of citizens. Diokno resigned from the Nacionalista Party in protest. By then he was in the thick of the mass protests that registered the people’s opposition to, among others, oil price increases and the abuse of civil liberties.
Diokno was among the first to be arrested when Marcos declared martial law in 1972. He was imprisoned for two years without charges, including several months of solitary confinement in Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija. After his release in 1974, he organized and led a small group of lawyers to form the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), which provided legal counsel to political prisoners and other victims of martial law.
With him as its chair from 1975 to 1982, the Civil Liberties Union of the Philippines published the first serious analysis of martial rule in the booklet, The State of the Nation after Three Years of Martial Law.
After the downfall of the Marcos regime in 1986, Diokno was appointed chair of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, although he was already seriously ill by then. He was also the first head of the Philippine government panel that conducted peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.
For all his responsibilities as a public advocate, he was a good family man, teaching his 10 children by example together with his wife and closest companion Carmen Icasiano.
Jose W. Diokno succumbed to lung cancer on February 27, 1987, one day after he turned 65. His legacy of outstanding service to the Filipino people is remembered to this day.