Feb. 26, 2022 marked the 100th birthday of a patriot and a statesman par excellence, Jose W. Diokno. To honor his life and his rich legacy, a plan to hold 100 Holy Masses on that day was in place. Many citizens’ groups and friends who uphold human rights and the rule of law and the principles Ka Pepe stood for were part of the day’s celebration. It was not surprising that 100 masses were surpassed – at last count, there were already 240+ such celebrations. It is not easy to gloss over the life of someone of Jose W. Diokno’s stature, his name spoken in the same breath as Ninoy Aquino, Lorenzo Tañada, Chino Roces.
Ka Pepe was a nationalist, former senator and secretary of justice. He was valedictorian of his high school class of De La Salle College in 1937, was summa cum laude for his commerce degree and topped the CPA board exams at age 17, having had to secure a special dispensation because he was underaged. His outstanding performance as a law practitioner led him to public prominence.
In 1962, President Diosdado Macapagal appointed him Secretary of Justice and he staunchly opposed and prosecuted the controversial tax evader Harry Stonehill. In November 1963, he became senator and was known for strenuously working to put control of the Philippine economy in the hands of Filipinos. Such was his influence on the people as the quintessential lawyer and street parliamentarian that when martial law was declared in 1972, he was the first member of the opposition to be arrested and imprisoned.
Upon his release from political imprisonment, Ka Pepe founded and led the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), the country’s first-ever pro bono legal service group that renders free service to martial law human rights victims. Its success christened him the Father of Human Rights Advocacy. The ultimate Filipino human rights advocate and patriot and described by the late senator Ninoy Aquino as “the most brilliant Filipino,” by columnist Randy David as “the best president we did not have” and by London’s Amnesty International as “the champion of justice and human rights in Asia,” he zealously defended his ideals and belief in the sacredness and dignity of the human person all his life.
Jose W. Diokno, one of the greatest nationalists in our history, had written:
“If life means having a good time, money, fame, power, security – then you don’t need principles; all you need are techniques. On the other hand, if happiness counts more than a good time, respect more than fame, right more than power and peace of soul more than security; if death doesn’t end life but transforms it, then you must be true to yourself and to God….”
Journalist and a former political prisoner Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon paid special tribute to Ka Pepe at a mass organized by the Women Writers in Media Now and celebrated by Fr. Albert Alejo, SJ from Rome. Excerpts from her message:
When Senator Diokno once asked: “When martial law was imposed, what happened to the law?”
To which he answered: “And so the 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.”
With senator Jose W. Diokno, I always stop to take in the brilliance. The mind behind these pleadings, put forth before men and women similarly schooled and nurtured, similarly exalted as thinkers, as judges, as solons – that mind had to be superior to so many in the same room. It had to be, to command the kind of respect and reverence that can bring us together today, his 100th year.
Today, it would be such a joy to be surrounded by that language, by those thoughts, to have the air ring with sounds that elevate heart and sensibility, and give us reason to think God is not asleep. In the end, though, I would like to go beyond Ka Pepe’s brilliance. I would like to go with something more precious: his goodness. I think that is what God would like, too.
To honor Ka Pepe’s gifted eloquence, Fr. Alejo, himself a writer and a poet, talked about the gift of words and the power that every word holds.
The happy news is that the first of what promises to be several volumes called “The Model Pleadings of Jose W. Diokno” cites some of the lawyer’s defiant efforts in the courtroom, a book that today’s generation of lawyers would gain so much wisdom and insights from. His lawyer-son Chel has these gems from his father’s notes:
“There are two sides to every lawsuit. A lawyer who knows his or her own case only is half prepared… Logic is only one facet of advocacy. Do not overlook relevant facts which create sympathy for or interest in your client.”
Ka Pepe’s life was a life cut too short, too abruptly. May there be another Diokno in the halls of the Senate, in his son, senatorial candidate Jose Manuel “Chel”Diokno, founding dean of the DLSU College of Law, today fittingly renamed the Tañada-Diokno College of Law.
(Excerpts from “The Lasallian as Public Servant” by Elfren S. Cruz and Leandro S.R. Cruz, The Future Begins Here: 1911-2011.)
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