‘Ka Pepe’ Diokno’s spirit lives
In the early-morning hours 45 years ago today, Ferdinand Marcos’ Presidential Decree 1081 declaring martial law two days earlier went into effect. The first arrests of the principal opposition figures were made, and topping the list of the “enemies of the state” were two senators, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. and Jose W. Diokno aka “Ka Pepe.”
It is a day I cannot forget because my brother Nelin was also arrested on charges of subversion. When our father told Nelin there were military men at the front door of our family home looking for him, he immediately tried to call Ka Pepe, as the latter had instructed student leaders to do should the dreaded martial law arrests happen. The call never went through because our phone connection had been cut, and it would anyway have been a futile exercise as Ka Pepe was then already detained in Camp Crame—something Nelin discovered when he got there himself.
Ka Pepe was ultimately detained in Fort Bonifacio and, as was Ninoy, held in solitary confinement in Laur, Nueva Ecija. Known for his academic prowess—he was a high school valedictorian and a summa cum laude graduate of De La Salle, and he topped the bar exam without completing a law degree as World War II had interrupted his law studies. His career as a senator was stellar, for he was brilliant, articulate, nationalistic. He is remembered and much respected for passionately taking up the cause of human rights after his two-year imprisonment which fired his resolve to fight. He was one of the first lawyers to provide legal assistance to political prisoners and victims of martial law, documenting the many cases of torture, disappearance, and death. He founded the Free Legal Assistance Group or FLAG, which carries on today under the leadership of his son, Jose Manuel (Chel) Diokno.
Ka Pepe served the Cory Aquino administration as chair of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights, the forerunner of today’s Commission on Human Rights. One cannot talk martial law without bringing up his name because of his tireless work to protect the rights of the many victims of the Marcos dictatorship. So it was just right that on the 45th anniversary of the signing of PD 1081, a full-size statue of Ka Pepe with a raised fist was unveiled on the CHR grounds on busy Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City. Executed in bronze by Julie Lluch and Lawin Abueva, it stands tall for everyone to see, and to remember the man.
At the unveiling, eldest Diokno daughter Mench said she loved how the spirit of her father had been so dramatically captured in the statue. CHR Chair Chito Gascon called it the defiant Diokno, and proudly announced two important points: that the commission did not spend a peso for the sculpture as it was a project of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, and that the park by the statue would henceforth be known as the Diokno Freedom Park, open to everyone especially protesters on their way to the Batasan complex.
The CHR’s initial way of honoring the human rights advocate was to name the building’s main hall “Bulwagang Ka Pepe Diokno.”
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes PA Sereno, herself a human rights advocate in her early years of lawyering, cleverly structured her much applauded remarks as a pretend conversation with Ka Pepe and what his words of counsel might be for all of us today. The youngest Diokno granddaughter, Inez Clarisa, while lamenting that none of them ever met their lolo, said they know of him and all that he stood for from stories about his life and times. She called on her generation to make sure that the Sept. 21 tragedy would never be forgotten.
Here are Ka Pepe’s words to strengthen us during the darkest of days: “We will struggle on, no matter how long it takes or what it costs, until we establish a just community of free men and women in our land, deciding together, working and striving together, but also singing and dancing, laughing and living together.”
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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