By September 1972, Joker P. Arroyo was already a seasoned lawyer with nearly twenty years of legal practice up his sleeve. The law firm in which he worked was the counsel of choice for three big journalism organizations: the National Press Club, the Philippine Press Institute, and the Manila Overseas Press Club. Two years before, in 1970, he helped defend the journalists Quintin and Rizal Yuyitung, who were forced into exile for allegedly publishing pro-Communist articles and exposing instances of fraud in the 1969 reelection of Marcos, among other supposedly anti-government reports. It turned out that representing the Yuyitungs and the press clubs was going to give Arroyo essential training for an incoming barrage of human rights cases for the next fourteen years.
On September 21, Marcos signed Proclamation No. 1081, placing the country under martial law, but before Arroyo even heard of it, his office was already receiving urgent calls from journalists who were being arrested left and right. In the afternoon of September 23, a Saturday, Arroyo filed a petition for habeas corpus to the Supreme Court on behalf of a group of journalists including Teodoro Locsin, Sr. of the Philippines Free Press and Joaquin “Chino” Roces of the Manila Times. Writers hail him as the first person to declare a legal battle against the martial law declaration because of his actions on September 23, but he explains that this, the very first petition, was more an act of desperation than a heroic display of righteous, legal indignation; he was merely employing all the available maneuvers to make sure that his clients were victimized no further in the hands of their captors. With the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus more than a year earlier, it was not an exaggeration to fear that worse things could be done to a victim of arbitrary arrest.
Arroyo did see the horrifying consequences of the writ suspension and a burgeoning culture of military impunity. Little by little his attentions redirected themselves to cases where he felt his skills were more needed; never mind that he was handling these pro-bono, since defending clients became a literal struggle between life and death. “You practically abandon your paying clients to attend to human rights cases,” said he in 2013 in an interview with Esquire Philippines. Those years, for a lawyer like him, necessitated the scouring of detention centers across the country in search of missing human rights victims and taking news of them back to their anxious families. Those years necessitated a tactical approach in probing instances of torture in order to find out the names of specific perpetrators. The identification of names meant hope, because then a report can be filed, but more often than not, this would fall on deaf ears, and another set of maneuvers was needed to make sure that the case was not simply snuffed out.
Pursuing justice at the time of martial law was a relentless process of resuscitating that which was left to die and deprived of a lifeline. In acknowledgment of this struggle, Arroyo co-founded the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity and Nationalism, Inc. (MABINI). Both organizations banded lawyers together to provide free legal aid to political detainees and other victims of human rights violations.
The legal crusade against martial law took shape in the hands of rights defenders and active critics of the dictatorship. One of their attempts is the case entitled Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., et. al vs. Commission on Elections, et. al (G.R. No. L-40004, 31 January 1975), where Aquino and Arroyo joined forces with twelve others to question not only martial law, but the authority of Marcos to assume the presidency and to issue proclamations, decrees, and orders. Then there was Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. vs. Military Commission 2, et. al (G.R. No. L-37364, 9 May 1975), where Arroyo and eight other big-name lawyers rallied forces to challenge the jurisdiction of a military commission over Aquino’s case and demanded due process as guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court upheld the validity of martial law in both cases and dismissed the petitions.
Arroyo challenged the dictatorship in court as well as on the streets. He was often seen joining rallies, and was well-acquainted with the brute force tactics of the military in suppressing various protests. In an interview with journalist Ceres Doyo in 1991, he remarked, “Those water cannons could be painful, ha. They’d train the water on you from head down to the crotch. Then you see all the men in front going down on their knees.” Eventually, he acquired for himself a makeshift armor similar to that worn by baseball players so he could keep joining rallies. “You have to suffer a bit to have commitment,” he concluded.
The bone of his contention was the government’s approach in handling what it regarded as a threat to national security. He insisted that it should never lose the moral high ground. “They are the government, therefore they cannot commit wrongs to equalize things,” he said. In 1978, he and over 600 others were arrested after conducting a noise barrage on the eve of the parliamentary elections. He then spent three months in prison with FLAG co-founders Lorenzo Tañada, Sr. and Jose Diokno. Those three months, he notes, afforded them privileges only accessible to the distinguished few – daily masses, liquor, and no cruel or degrading treatment – a characteristic typical of a justice system that grossly discriminates.
Arroyo carried on with no less persistence for human rights after being released from prison. The years 1980 to 1984 saw another wave of harassment against journalists, who were receiving subpoenas or letters of invitation to be interrogated by the National Intelligence Board (NIB). The interrogation questions included masked threats and leading queries – “Are you familiar with the problem of brainwashing?” and “Don’t you think you are being unwittingly used by those who try to subvert the government?” In court and before the special investigating committees, Arroyo gave his counsel to some of these journalists. When Ceres Doyo received a Php10-million libel suit in 1983 for an article she wrote on human rights violations in Bataan, Arroyo personally called and offered to be her counsel, pro-bono. Through his legal maneuverings the case was made to hibernate until it was finally dropped under the presidency of Cory Aquino.
Arroyo combated the dictatorship to its end in 1986, when he served as Aquino’s legal counsel during the snap election. Years after being appointed by the new president as her Executive Secretary, he led the prosecuting panel in the impeachment trial against then-President Joseph Estrada, and went on to represent Makati in the House of Representatives from 1992 to 2001 and was elected a Member of the Senate from 2001 to 2013. He passed away on 5 October 2015 at the age of 88, evoking a slew of tributes and eulogies from ever-grateful clients, friends, and colleagues.
 Oliver X.A. Reyes, “The Defense Rests: The Joker Arroyo Story,” Esquire Philippines, April 2013. Republished on October 8, 2018 at https://www.esquiremag.ph/long-reads/profiles/joker-arroyo-bio-a1542-20181008-lfrm5.
 Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, “He was my human rights lawyer,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 8, 2015;
Bantayog ng mga Bayani, “YUYITUNG, Rizal C.K.,” January 19, 2017, http://www.bantayog.org/yuyitung-rizal-c-k/;
Bantayog ng mga Bayani, “YUYITUNG, Quintin G.,” April 11, 2016, http://www.bantayog.org/yuyitung-quintin-g/.
 Reyes, “The Defense Rests.”
 Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, “Joker Arroyo unedited: On Marcos debts, in defense of ‘trapos,’ Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 18, 2015.
For details on the proceedings of these petitions, see In Matter of Petition for Habeas Corpus of Benigno S. Aquino v. Juan Ponce Enrile (G.R. No. L-35546, September 17, 1974). The specific petitions for which Arroyo argued for are in L-35538 and L-35567.
 Reyes, “The Defense Rests.”
Sixteenth Congress of the House of Representatives, “Resolution Expressing the Profound Condolences of the House of Representatives to the Family of the Honorable Joker P. Arroyo, Statesman, Former Senator and Representative of the First District of Makati City During the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Congresses,” House Resolution No. 2446 (Quezon City, 2015).
 Doyo, “Joker Arroyo unedited.”
 Reyes, “The Defense Rests.”
 Doyo, “Joker Arroyo unedited.”
 Arlene Babst v. National Intelligence Board, G.R. No. L-62992 (September 28, 1984).
 Doyo, “He was my human rights lawyer.”
 House Resolution No. 2446;
Senate of the Philippines, “Senator Joker P. Arroyo,” resume, accessed April 13, 2021, http://legacy.senate.gov.ph/senators/sen_bio/arroyo_resume.asp.
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