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Chel Diokno: A justice league of his own

Human rights lawyer Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno was out on a mission: To introduce himself and to listen to the people of Laguna.

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Senatorial candidate and human rights lawyer Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno meets with select community representatives in San Pablo City. (Photo by Chris Quintana)

SAN PABLO CITY — He arrived with barely a sound or a scene. No shrilly campaign jingles. No intimidating police escorts or convoy. No imposing security aides. No huge tarpaulins announcing his visit.

At a café by the lakeside in this city, eager smiles and solid handshakes greeted the bespectacled senatorial candidate clad in teal, his name embroidered in black on his shirt. He returned the warm welcome with “Kumusta po kayo?”

Human rights lawyer Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno was out on a mission: To introduce himself and to listen to the people of Laguna. On Wednesday, March 20, Diokno visited four municipalities in Laguna province to speak with law students and teachers, volunteers, and community leaders. There was no game-show-like program — no singing, no dancing, no comedic skits, no tossing of giveaways. Just a simple conversation between candidate and constituents.

In this city, Diokno talked with some local officials, community influencers, and a few law students and faculty. He said he didn’t have plans of entering politics but he couldn’t stomach what has happened to the country in recent years, like insults hurled toward women and God, attacks on the media, China’s encroachment into the West Philippine Sea, and, of course, extrajudicial killings. He believes that by being a senator, he could make a difference. “Ang naiiwan na lang na institusyon na may kayang manindigan para sa ating demokrasya ay ang Senado,” he said.

Justice as platform

With his battle cry, “Boses ng katarungan,” Diokno puts forth his main platform: justice. Some were concerned that justice may be too abstract a concept for most people but Diokno thought otherwise. “Well, totoo naman pagdating sa justice, we can debate kung ano ang ibig sabihin nyan. Pero pagdating sa injustice, kahit sino sa ating bayan, alam nila yung feeling ng pagkawala ng hustisya,” he said in his low, modulated, and very professorial voice. (He was a professor before all this and was the founding of the La Salle University law school.)

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It can be said that injustice – or fighting it, more specifically – is a Diokno family tradition. His late father, Jose “Pepe” Diokno, is the foremost icon of human rights in the Philippines, having been the founding chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, which he fought to establish after the 1986 Edsa uprising. He also founded the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), a nonprofit that represented pro bono the victims of injustice and rights abuses during the Marcos dictatorship. Chel is now the chairman of FLAG, which now represents many victims of the extrajudicial killings under President Duterte.

Dubbed “woke lolo,” the 58-year-old senatorial candidate is being well received by many young voters because of his progressive stand on major issues concerning the country. Youth leaders in Nagcarlan town, which he visited on a whirlwind day tour of the province, were pleased that Diokno was there to listen to what they had to say, as they felt that their voice is being neglected and that they are discouraged from participating in political discourse. They raised issues like the need for mentoring and monitoring, youth enrichment, inclusiveness, and engagement.

Diokno and the youth leaders shared a simple lunch beside the historic Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery where Spanish friars were laid to rest. The young adults greatly appreciated Diokno’s visit and did not pass up the chance to take selfies and “groufies” with him. “We are very much honored at natutuwa kami kasi nabisita ni Attorney Chel Diokno ang isang maliit na bayan ng Nagcarlan na hindi naman ganon kakilala pero nabigyan kami ng oras at pagkakataon,” said 22-year-old Eddison Astronomo, chairperson of a youth group.

The next stop was a little-known barangay, Santo Angel Norte, in the province’s capital of Santa Cruz. Diokno walked through a narrow village path under the noontime sun and shook hands with some people on the street, who were a bit reluctant because they were unfamiliar with the gray-haired candidate. At a small makeshift hall, members of a women’s group were gathered. Diokno introduced himself and talked about his platform amid the sounds of crowing roosters and barking dogs. The women expressed their support for the aspiring senator, and promised to vote for the rest of Otso Diretso, an alliance of senatorial candidates including Diokno.

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In a corner, standing with crutches, was Rodel Bataller, 39, leader of a local persons with disability (PWD) group. He voiced out his frustrations, saying that even though there are laws in place to ensure that PWDs are adequately represented and are not discriminated in the workplace, implementation is very poor. He hopes that with Diokno, these concerns would be addressed. He also thanked him for coming to their village, as national candidates rarely visit them.

At Diokno’s last stop in Bay town, he met with volunteers and representatives from various civil society organizations from this town as well as Los Baños and Calamba. He literally broke bread with them, snacking on hot, freshly baked Monay Bae, the town’s specialty. Diokno touched on agriculture and said that modernization is needed to raise the standard of living of farmers and fisherfolk. “I have said this many times na yung ating farmers at fisherfolk, sila talaga ang balikat ng bayan. Bakit natin sila pinababayaan?” he said.

Just two months before the elections, Diokno’s ranking on popular surveys is still far from ideal, not even close to the coveted “magic 12.” But it does not bother him. He claimed he was getting a lot of support from youth and women’s groups and that his ranking improved despite the absence of television advertisements. Diokno opted to go directly to the people so that the people would get to know him. “Dahil wala kaming pera pambayad ng TV advertisement, we have no choice but to go on the ground.”

Winning is a long shot for Diokno but the man is determined. “As long as maisulong natin itong issue, to me, victory in the election is secondary because sa akin, ang talagang mahalaga [ay] itong issue na ito (justice),” he said.

“But what would you do if you lose?” asked a curious San Pableño. Without hesitation, Diokno answered: “The same thing I’ve been doing before.” Which is to say fighting injustice when no one else does. (Laguna Now)

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