In 1972, Joker Arroyo had been a lawyer for nearly 20 years, satisfied with a modest yet thriving general legal practice. Among the clients of his law firm were three major press groups—the National Press Club, the Philippine Press Institute and the Manila Overseas Press Club. The general practice was hardly cause-oriented. There was one notable exception. Two years earlier, his law firm had collaborated with the legal defense of the Yuyitung brothers, Rizal and Quintin, publishers of the Chinese-language Chinese Commercial News then fending off deportation after publishing news reports culled from Western wire services about the People’s Republic of China, which the Philippines did not yet recognize as a legitimate country. Their legal efforts proved in vain. While the deportation proceedings were pending, the Yuyitung brothers were seized by the military and airlifted to Taiwan where they were locked up in a military prison. Eventually, one of the brothers was slated for release. Arroyo’s law partner, Johnny Quijano, flew to Taipei to attend to their client. It was Saturday, September 23, 1972. His passport cancelled, Johnny Quijano would be able to return to the Philippines only in 1986.
Arroyo was at his office when he received a fateful phone call from the Philippines Free Press. The magazine’s offices had been padlocked, its editor Teddy Locsin, Sr. had been arrested. More phone calls brought news of more arrests of journalists—Chino Roces, Max Soliven, Amando Doronila, Louie Beltran. Before Philippine Press Institute Director Johnny Mercado was himself arrested, he managed to call up Arroyo, telling him that martial law had been declared.
Those days, people worked on Saturdays. By the afternoon, Arroyo had filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of his journalist-clients, asking that their captors be compelled to present their live bodies before the Supreme Court. The veteran lawyer had never prepared a habeas corpus petition before. This was less an act of defiance against the looming dictatorship, more an act of desperation of a lawyer employing the most sacrosanct of legal remedies to ensure that his clients did not permanently disappear. Nonetheless, because habeas corpus forces judges to inquire into the causes of one’s detention, Joker Arroyo became the person to challenge the newly-acquired dictatorial powers of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship.
Until that moment, Arroyo was apolitical. He had never met the eminences of the anti-Marcos opposition such as Tañada, Diokno and Soc Rodrigo. They learned that he was the first to step into the line of fire, so they welcomed him into their circle. Arroyo gained a new set of clients, the victims of Marcos’s political oppression. His most famous client was Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., whom Arroyo had only known as that plebe whom he as an upperclassman had initiated into the Upsilon Sigma Phi back in the 1950s. Another fraternity brother, from an earlier generation, was Ferdinand Marcos. Arroyo says he never got to meet that President.
Arroyo’s law firm, unable to attract new clients, dwindled in size until there were only two lawyers left. His pre-martial law clients did not relieve his services, but Arroyo notes, “You practically abandon your paying clients to attend to human rights cases.” Arroyo was now a full-fledged human rights lawyer, at a time when human rights abuses were most flagrant. “Filipinos suffered physical and psychological cruelty and brutality under the Spaniards, then the Americans during the Philippine-American War, then under the Japanese.” Martial law, however, was different. “It was torture inflicted by Filipinos on Filipinos. Military brutality on civilians who were merely suspected of going against the autocratic government.” Arroyo does generally acquit “the run of the mill officers and men” of the Armed Forces of involvement in human rights violations. “The perpetrators were mostly those in the intelligence services who conducted interrogations and who demanded quick answers and confessions. Those that did not do so were tortured or liquidated.” For Arroyo, the armed insurgency did not justify torture. “One thing the government should never forget—that they should never lose their moral high ground. They are the government, therefore they cannot commit wrongs to equalize things.”
Human rights advocacy at the height of martial law led Joker Arroyo to uncomfortable places in the dead of night, in search of clients who had disappeared. “You go to the military camp in the middle of the evening, then you talk to that guard who does not know anything. Then you ask for the officer of the day, the officer of the day comes out, talks to you. You tell the officer, we’re looking for so and so, and he says, we don’t know. Through persistence, because you park yourself outside of the guard house… somehow when they change guards, naawa na lang—that’s also the Filipino character—they go back, then finally an officer comes out and says, nandito pero we cannot allow you inside the camp because it is past curfew. We will just stay here. Again, awa. Then you’re allowed to get in, and we see them.
“When you see that a person has been tortured, you cannot ask the lowly sergeant who is guarding him, why have they been tortured, he’s just a guard there. You start looking for the officer who caused the torture, and the entire camp is silent, nobody knows it. Then you’re trying to probe deep into it, little by little, just to try to find out who did it. If you succeed, then you try to report it, then that complaint falls on deaf ears. So, you try to go up the ladder… it’s a very frustrating job. But you know, binugbog.” He pauses. “Can you imagine? Women, they electrocute their vaginas, their nipples.”
Arroyo bristles at the idea that his later public offices—Executive Secretary, Congressman, Senator—were more significant than his work from outside the margins. “Desk jobs,” he calls these high offices, “no sacrifice, no risk, no danger.” Human rights lawyering was different. You sweat it out. “We go all over the country looking for victims of human rights whose families don’t know where they are, then you find them, and when you find them, you report to the parents, ‘Nakita ko na 'yung anak mo, hindi naman ginalaw.’ And the facial expression of the parents, that nothing had happened to their children, these are the feelings, these are the rewards you cannot…” The sentence remains incomplete, but it is clear Arroyo has no regrets.
During martial law, human rights lawyering did not garner much sympathy. Arroyo regrets that not much has changed today. “There’s very little empathy even today towards reports on human rights abuses. You report on these abuses, it does not create attention, especially if the victims are lowly. If you are watching television reports on such abuses, it will not stick in your mind.” Has torture become so entrenched in the Filipino culture as to desensitize us? “I don’t know,” he says. “Why?” he adds. The question remains unanswered.
Arroyo’s own detention experience—three months in 1978—was in contrast, a lark, evoking the mafiosos' jailhouse pasta dinners as depicted in Goodfellas. A noise barrage on the eve of the discreditable 1978 parliamentary elections landed over 600 people in detention at Bicutan, including Senators Diokno, Tañada and Rodrigo, and Joker Arroyo. Prison was an unexpectedly kind experience. Prominent detainees would attend a daily 3 p.m. mass celebrated by a fellow detainee, the Jesuit Fr. Romeo Intengan, then repair to a literal cocktail hour—Pepe Diokno, memorably, once tripped, shattering a large bottle of whiskey that he had brought for the occasion. Arroyo acknowledges the unfairness of the situation— the less well-known detainees did not enjoy such boarding school privileges. “Who could touch Tañada, who could touch Rodrigo?” Non-establishment figures would not fare better, especially the communists, who would become the worst victims of human rights violations.
Arroyo says that Marcos saw a benefit to the communist insurgency. It served as leverage when Marcos would negotiate with Cold War-era Washington D.C. Arroyo emerged from the Marcos years branded as a leftist—guilt by association. “The legal opposition were one with the armed opposition in the NDF and the NPA in going against the dictatorship. Visiting American officials during martial law would ask why there was such an informal alliance. We reminded them that in World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill joined forces with Stalin to defeat Hitler’s Germany. Both the Anglo-Americans and the Soviets knew full well beforehand that after the downfall of Nazism, the democratic allies would be at loggerheads with the totalitarian USSR because of irreconcilable ideological differences. And that is exactly what happened after World War II. And that was also what happened after EDSA.”
Marcos was not as concerned with the communists as he was with the secessionists in Mindanao, Arroyo now says. As for those who employed peaceful means of opposition, Marcos preferred to ignore them. Arroyo is acutely conscious that the totalitarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos did not terrorize, on a daily basis, each and every citizen. Nothing like the dictatorship of the three Kims of North Korea. The atmosphere of fear that prevailed during the first few days of martial law became inculturated in the people’s daily routine, diminishing its bearing. And the fear led to a form of calm —Arroyo claims he felt safer driving around Metro Manila during martial law than today.
Arroyo is also unexpectedly generous towards Bongbong, now Sen. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. He now says of his fellow Senator, “He avoids unnecessary controversy, he tries very hard to be very objective… I don’t think it’s fair that the children should answer for the faults.” Did the younger Marcos’s defense of his father’s martial law rule diminish his standing in the eyes of Arroyo? “I would think less of Bongbong if he didn’t defend his father. You expect a son to say ‘my father was no good’? In law, you can’t testify against your mother or father, that is already the law. To have the children say their mea culpa...”
“I entered politics as an independent. Being an independent has its own rewards and drawbacks. I could not ask for favors, but I have no debts to repay either."