A CPA and bar topnotcher, former justice secretary, consistently voted outstanding senator, ardent nationalist against foreign intervention and dictates from multinational firms, crusader against authoritarianism and corruption, and a known champion of human rights, Jose Wright Diokno was detained for two years during the early peak of Martial Law from September 1972 to September 1974. Malacañang sent six carloads of armed soldiers to his home in New Manila to arrest him. Although they had no warrant, they detained him in Camp Crame together with Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. and Chino Roces. He and Ninoy Aquino were later transferred to Laur, Nueva Ecija where they suffered solitary confinement resulting to their weakened health and frequent illnesses.
Diokno was born in Manila on 26 February 1922 to parents Ramon Diokno (a former senator from Batangas and Supreme Court justice and Leonor Wright, a British mestiza). He graduated as a high school valedictorian from De la Salle College, Manila where he also graduated summa cum laude in commerce from the same school (now university) at age 17. Although still too young, he took the board examination for accountancy after securing a special permit – and topped it. Seemingly wanting to follow his father’s successful law profession, he enrolled in law at the University of Santo Tomas. The outbreak of World War II cut short his formal studies. However, he continued studying by reading books required in the course while serving as an office assistant in his father’s bupete or law office. Later he took the bar examination – after securing dispensation from the board of examiners, as he had not completed the law course, and as in the CPA board examination, topped it.
As expected, he proved to be a brilliant, successful lawyer and became nationally known for it after winning a series of high profile cases, including the libel charges against Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson.
President Diosdado Macapagal appointed Diokno as Secretary of Justice in 1961. His crusading spirit and political will immediately materialized when in the same year he ordered a raid in a company owned by an American businessman, Harry S. Stonehill, suspected of various crimes including tax evasion and bribery of public officials. He was preparing for the prosecution of those involved in the government, but President Diosdado Macapagal, for “fear” of the former’s life, hastily deported the American unharmed, and ironically asked the justice secretary to quit from his post.
Diokno ran for senator in the election year 1963 and won. He became chairman of the economic affairs committee, and being a nationalist, he worked for the passage of pro-Filipino bills, such as the Industrial Incentives Bill and Joint Resolution No. 2 and co-authored the Revised Election Law and the Export Incentives Act. Due to his achievements, the Philippine Free Press voted him Most Outstanding Senator for four successive years: 1967-1970.
During his second term in the early 1970s, Diokno became critical of Malacañang policies shifting to authoritarianism as he saw this as an anathema to freedom, democracy, and human rights. In protest, he resigned from the Nacionalista Party of President Ferdinand Marcos when the latter suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus after the Plaza Miranda bombing in August 1971. He joined the street parliamentarians together with Senator Lorenzo Tañada and publisher Chino Roces – denouncing the evils of the regime and calling for Marcos to resign.
Diokno was among the first few leading oppositionists arrested and detained a few days after Marcos declared Martial Law on 21 September 1972. Not long after his release in September 1974, and while still regaining his health, he formed the Free Legal Assistance Group, mainly to give free legal assistance to the victims of Martial Law. The senator personally defended those that the military harassed and threatened – specifically the minority ethnic groups, peasants, workers, and fishermen. He also founded the Anti-Bases Coalition for the closure of American military bases in the Philippines and the Movement for Philippine Sovereignty and Democracy or Kilusan sa Kapangyarihan at Kasarinlan ng Bayan, popularly known as KAAKBAY.
Diokno was a towering leader opposing Marcos dictatorship until the breakout of the bloodless EDSA People Power in February 1986. After the historic event, President Corazon Aquino appointed him chairman of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights. Unfortunately, the military shot dead 15 farmers during a rally in Mendiola on 22 January 1987. With too much sadness and in protest against the senseless killing of the farmer rallyists, he resigned from the post. He died of lung cancer on 27 February 1987, more than one month after the tragic rally. (Roger Mangahas)