Renowned Street Parliamentarian

Nationalist, and Legal Luminary


Jose W. Diokno, or “Ka Pepe,” as he was popularly known, was born on February 26, 1922 to Ramon Diokno, a former associate justice of the Supreme Court, and Eleanor Wright, an American who became a Filipino citizen.

He graduated from elementary school with distinction, and finished his secondary education at De La Salle College as valedictorian in 1937.  In 1940, he earned his bachelor’s degree in commerce summa cum laude also at La Salle.  He topped the CPA board examination in the same year with a rating of 81.18 percent.  In 1944, without finishing his bachelor of laws degree, he took and topped the bar examination, with a rating of 95.3 percent.

Immediately after passing the bar, Diokno embarked on his law practice, handling controversial cases, like the one of Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson, that brought him to public prominence.

In 1961, President Diosdado Macapagal appointed him Secretary of Justice.

A celebrated case he handled as Secretary of Justice involved the American businessman Harry S. Stonehill, who was suspected of tax evasion and other crimes.  In prosecuting it, he issued an order to have the businessman’s offices searched.  The case became too controversial because of the tremendous influence that Stonehill wielded on both Americans and the Filipinos.  Fearing for the life of his crusading justice secretary, President Macapagal asked him to resign from the office.

In the November 1963 elections, Diokno ran for senator, and won.

As chairman of the economic affairs committee in the Senate, Diokno advocated and worked for the passage of pro-Filipino legislations, like the Industrial Incentives Law, which provides incentives to Filipino investors and entrepreneurs in order to place the control of the Philippine economy in the hands of the Filipinos.

The Philippines Free Press consistedly voted Diokno as an outstanding senator for his pro-people legislation and strong opposition to the legislation of laws which he considered inimical to the interests of Filipinos.

In 1968, while the Vietnam War was still raging, the Free Press named him and several of his colleagues – Jovito Salonga, Benigno Aquino Jr., and Tecla San Andrez Ziga – as outstanding senators for their staunch opposition to the “Philcag Bill,” which proposed the sending of Filipino troops to Vietnam and an annual appropriation of P35 million to maintain them while on their mission there.

Interviewed by the Free Press on his stand, Diokno said:

“I cannot vote for the bill because it is an affront to our national dignity…because I cannot agree to spend P35 million for another people when we cannot even provide for the most basic needs of our own.  This amount of P35 million is not all that will be spent.  These millions are for one year only… Is this right, is this fair to our people when we have not even released the appropriation of P50 million for our school building program and are, today, three years behind schedule?”

When President Ferdinand Marcos proposed a bill appropriating a “political budget” of P2.8 billion, of which P100 million was to be doled out, at P2,000 each, to 31,000 barrios throughout the Philippines without any apparent program for the use of the amount, Senator Diokno reacted strongly.  He not only opposed the proposed legislation, but also advised the administration to think twice about going through it, adding that”…. If it is done, it will surely boomerang.”

Consistent with his pro-people advocacy, Diokno proposed a humanized system of taxation.  He said:

“I don’t believe in imposing on our people more taxes that would burden the poor.  But I believe in taxes for the rich, taxes they can afford.  That is why I am for imposing travel tax, for increasing taxes on real estate and private automobiles.  But I don’t think taxes on petroleum products should be increased as the oil companies would just pass on the burden to the consumers and this would affect the masses.”

In 1967, together with Senator Lorenzo Tanada, Diokno was voted outstanding senator by the Philippine Free Press on account of his serious studies local petroleum industry which led to the discovery that the said industry was fully controlled by four refineries owned by foreigners.  An offshoot of these studies was the passage of a legislation that has since regulated the petroleum industry in the land.

A zealous human rights lawyer, particularly during the martial law period. Diokno believed in the sacredness and dignity of the human personality.  Thus, when he learned about the so-called “Jabidah Affair” on Corregidor, he lambasted the Marcos administration.

Diokno was again voted outstanding senator in 1969 and 1970, thus earning the distinction of being the only senator so honored for four consecutive years beginning in 1967.

At that times, President Marcos was bending towards dictatorship in preparation for the declaration of martial law.  Diokno, seeing the increase in human rights vilations in the Marcos regime, bolted from the Nacionalista Party in the early part of 1972.  His crusade for human rights so irked Marcos that, when martial law was finally declared on September 21, he was the first member of the opposition to be arrested.  He was imprisoned without any charges being filed against him.

Upon his release in 1974, Diokno immediately organized the Free Legal Assistance Group, which gave free legal services to the victims of military oppression under martial law.

From the time he was released from prison, Diokno fearlessly, and with grim determination, fought for the restoration of Philippine democracy.  He was a towering figure in opposition rallies denouncing the Marcos regime from 1974 up to the “EDSA Revolution” in February 1986.  During the incarceration of Ninoy Aquino, Diokno was in constrant contact with him through Mrs. Aquino, who acted as confident of the two foremost oppositionists of the Marcos regime.

After the EDSA Revolution, President Corazon C. Aquino appointed him chairman of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights, with the rank of minister, and chairman of the government panel which tried to negotiate for the return of rebel forces to the folds of the law.  However, after the “Mendiola massacre” of January 22, 1987, where 15 farmers died during an otherwise peaceful rally, Diokno resigned from his two government posts in protest of what he called “warson disregard” of human lives by an administration he had helped install.

At 2:40 a.m., on February 26, 1987, Diokno died at his home on 3rd Street, New Manila.  The cause of his death was “acute respiratory failure due to cancer.”

Diokno was married to the former Carmen Icasiano, by whom he had 10 children:  Carmen Leonor, Jose Ramon, Maria de la Paz, Maria Serena, Maria Teresa, Maria Socorro, Jose Miguel, Jose Manuel, Maria Victoria, and Martin Jose.

President Aquino declared March 2-12, 1987 as a period of national mourning for Diokno.  During this period, flags of all government buildings and installations throughout the country were flown at half-mast.

Expressing her grief over the passing of Diokno, the President said: “Pepe braved the Marcos dictatorship with a dignified and eloquent courage our country will long remember.”  A newspaper editorial commented:  “With his passing, Mr. Diokno left a void nearly impossible to fill.  The Chairman of the Presidential Commission (sic) on Human Rights, he carved a niche in the National Consciousness as a crusading Senator, a brilliant lawyer, and a staunch Nationalist who brought his insight and his expertise to bear (on) such crucial issues as human rights, the nuclear arms race, and American intervention in Philippine affairs.”  Joaquin “Chino” Roces, Manila Chronicle publisher and street parliamentarian, said of Diokno:  Although his death was expected, it is unfortunate at this time to lose a true Filipino.  I hope he will always be remembered by the people.  I’m very sorry that he was not given enough time to serve the people.”

For its part, the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan made this statement:  “During much of his lifetime, Ka Pepe Diokno was a driving force behind the Nationalist and Democratic Movement in the country.  Ka Pepe is dead and we deeply mourn his loss.  But we do so with a knowledge that his was a life that was not led in vain.  He had been an effective sower of the seeds of Nationalism and democracy in the country.  We owe it to him to nurture his efforts until these bear fruit in a truly just, free and democratic society.”