Thursday, October 8, 2015

Joker Arroyo: He was my human rights lawyer

Philippine Daily Inquirer/FEATURES/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

I AM STILL a bit shaky after learning from Inquirer editor in chief Letty J. Magsanoc that Joker Arroyo has “passed on to the highest court in the great beyond,” but I am under orders “to write a personal tribute,” so I write.

When an Army general of the Marcos dictatorship slapped me with a P10-million libel suit in 1983 for my Panorama magazine article on human rights violations committed against rural folks in Bataan province, the publication gave me a lawyer, and from the Siguion-Reyna Law Office no less.

And then I got a call from Joker Arroyo whom I had never spoken to personally but whom I knew as a tough human rights lawyer and defender of big-name Marcos victims as well as unknown ones languishing in the dungeons of martial rule. I had been familiar with cases documented by the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), a mission partner of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, and had helped in some of their publications, so his name rang loud.

His face was familiar too because he was among those often photographed with bigwigs of the anti-Marcos forces in rallies. He was also in photographs taken at the court trial of Ninoy Aquino that showed the defense team that included him and Sen. Lorenzo Tañada.

Could he have a word with me? Joker said on the phone. Could we meet somewhere? Joker came alone to a small restaurant in Quezon City and offered to be my lawyer. Pro bono, of course. I told him that I already had a lawyer, Saklolo Leano of Siguion-Reyna. He said he knew “Sak,” that they would work together to defend me. He was insistent and I couldn’t help wondering why my case meant the world to him. Perhaps because his late sister Nimia was a writer, I mused.

Defending women writers

Just a little backgrounder. I had been the first writer to be interrogated by the defense department (1980) and later was one of several women writers who went through a series of interrogations conducted by a military tribunal (1983). “National Intelligence Board” was how the military officers called themselves. It was the brainchild of Gen. Fabian Ver, then the Armed Forces chief of staff. I called them the Sanhedrin.

And then my case became like a trial balloon. In street-corner lingo, “sasampolan.” That was after our group, Women Writers in Media Now, routed the “National Intelligence Board” at the Supreme Court. We had a battery of human rights Mabini lawyers, with Tañada leading the pack, and Joker was among them.

We thought it was over. All of a sudden, Brig. Gen. Artemio Tadiar, commander of the 3rd Marine Brigade, came out of the woodwork to claim he had been maligned by the article. He had become a military attaché somewhere, but a P10-million libel suit was staring me in the face. It was pure harassment.

Rosary in his pocket

I said yes to Joker defending my case. While saying goodbye after our talk, he pulled out something from his pocket, a handkerchief, I think, and out fell his rosary.

The case was filed in Manila. I remember Joker telling me to make myself unobtrusive until bail had been posted, else I’d be handcuffed by the sheriff right there. At the preliminary hearing, Joker and Rene Saguisag clashed swords with then fiscal Jose Flaminiano (Joe Flame, Joker called him).

Well, to my chagrin, the Joe Flame filed the case for hearing. I don’t recall the name of the legal maneuver Joker did to make the case hibernate but it did. Thankfully, it did not progress to see me impoverished and in prison because the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution happened.

Still, I made sure the case was finally dropped. Joker, President Cory Aquino’s executive secretary, made sure that would happen.

I was assigned to do a Sunday Inquirer Magazine cover story on Joker, no longer the executive secretary (“Joker Arroyo Looks Back,” Feb. 24, 1991) for the fifth anniversary of the triumph of people power that saw the Marcos dictatorship crashing down. The Q & A is still quite a read.


Joker sent a handwritten letter dated Feb. 21, 1991, tucked inside a long white envelope with a Post-It on the flap. So old-school, I thought. He sent it through then Inquirer publisher Eggie Apostol.

It read: “Eggie was indulgent enough to send me an advance copy. I felt great, being alternately humanized, then made bigger than life, then being combative, then supposedly humble in a stylish play of words and format only you can craft. Thanks really.

“I kept reading and rereading it like a priest reads and rereads the breviary in blind faith. And the paper didn’t soil. Has the color any preservative?

“Why don’t you, Lorna (then magazine editor), Bullit (Marquez, Associated Press photojournalist) and I meet for Chinese or Japanese, Filipino or Thai, Italian or Spanish lunch? Do set the date a week ahead or whatever. If mater publisher will condescend, it will be nice for her to join and stifle the fun. Most sincerely, Joker. P.S. Your handwriting is the trademark of a school.”

A faxed letter, now fading on thermal paper, was his reaction to my feature article on the exhibit of medieval torture instruments and King Ludwig’s castle that I visited in Germany. It continued with a letter to magazine editor Lorna Kalaw-Tirol congratulating her. “Why my interest in this (the Inquirer magazine)? I was editor of the Chinese Commercial News, a pre-martial law Chinese language paper. When the Yuyitung brothers, Quintin and Rizal, owners, were deported in 1970, I took over as editor so the show (newspaper) will go on. Advertising became my concern and was illiterate in Chinese. I was their lawyer.”

(The names of the Yuyitung brothers are now carved on the granite Wall of Remembrance of Bantayog ng mga Bayani dedicated to heroes and martyrs who fought, died or were imprisoned during the martial law years, a number of whom Joker had defended.)


Another note, written on Civil Liberties Union of the Philippines/Free Legal Assistance Group stationery said: “Your answers conveyed unabashed humility and plain grit. Very searing. I just thought I should let you know.” I think it was about an article on me. Printed at the bottom of the stationery were the names Lorenzo M. Tañada, Jose W. Diokno and Joker P. Arroyo. The Mabini brotherhood of lawyers was not yet in existence then.

From Joker, I learned the meaning of “equipoise” that he used to describe a trait of Sr. Mariani Dimaranan SFIC, human rights defender and founder of TFDP. After she died and I was writing an article on her, I asked Joker for a quote and he obliged. What a tribute he gave.

So many years have passed but the women writers and the Mabini lawyers continued to keep in touch with each other, our way of expressing our appreciation for their stand and struggle to defend the oppressed and see justice prevail. A number of them later occupied elective and appointive positions in government, among them, Joker Arroyo (executive secretary, congressman, senator), Rene Saguisag (senator), Fulgencio Factoran (environment secretary), Augusto Sanchez (labor secretary), but they did not enrich themselves. (Joker, you know why I am saying this.)

When we came together to wine and dine, there would be lots of reminiscences, political gossip, teasing, jokes and laughter. We would also speak about painful and crushing incidents in the past. Joker would come with his wry sense of humor but would occasionally give in to cajoling and break open his thoughts even while feigning disinterest in silly, mundane matters.

No goodbyes

The second to the last time we lunched with Mabini lawyers Joker, Saguisag and Factoran was sometime in 2013. Joker ordered Chinese food and paid for it. When reminiscing time came, I suddenly remembered and narrated that small rosary incident with Joker when I was an endangered species. What do you know, the three formidable human rights lawyers, food in their mouths, instantly dug into their pockets and brought out their rosaries. Joker, too, had his.

No goodbyes, Joker. You left on the month of the rosary. My prayers and sympathies to your daughters and your lawyer-wife Fely.

I had written about persons who mattered to the lives of many and to my own, persons who are listed in my book. If I may quote myself, let me say and apply this to you, too: “You will be reborn in my words/ On the pages I write you will rise/ You will die say goodbye/ But I will remember/ I will make you live again in my words.” #