MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Lebanese man suspected in the death of a Filipina maid whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait has been arrested, the Philippine foreign secretary said Friday.
Alan Peter Cayetano said he has told President Rodrigo Duterte about the arrest in Lebanon of Nader Essam Assaf but added that Assaf’s Syrian wife, who is also a suspect in the death of Joanna Demafelis, remains at large.
The discovery of Demafelis’s body on Feb. 6 in the apartment in Kuwait City, where it had reportedly been kept for more than a year, sparked outrage and refocused attention on the tragic plight of poor Filipinas toiling mostly as maids abroad. It prompted Duterte to ban the deployment of new Filipino workers to Kuwait, where many abuses have been reported.
Assaf and his wife employed Demafelis. Duterte and other officials have asked Kuwaiti authorities to hunt for the couple.
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“Assaf’s arrest is a critical first step in our quest for justice for Joanna and we are thankful to our friends in Kuwait and Lebanon for their assistance,” Cayetano said in a statement, adding that he expects Kuwait will seek Assaf’s extradition.
After attending Demafelis’s wake on Thursday in her hometown of Sara in the central Philippines, Duterte told reporters the ban on the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait would continue and could be expanded to other countries.
Duterte said Demafelis’s body bore torture marks and signs that she was strangled. He said the government is conducting an assessment to “find out the places where we deploy Filipinos and our countrymen suffer brutal treatment and human degradation.”
The Philippines is a major labor exporter with about a tenth of its more than 100 million people working abroad. The workers have been called national heroes because the income they send home sustains the Southeast Asian nation’s economy, accounting for about 10 percent of its annual gross domestic product.
Philippine officials are under increasing pressure to do more to monitor the safety of the workers, who are mostly maids, construction workers and laborers.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III told a Senate hearing that he recalled three labor officers from Kuwait to be investigated over their failure to act on a request by Demafelis’s family for help after she went missing in January last year, he said.
Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration reported at least 196 Filipinos had died in Kuwait in the last two years, mostly for unspecified medical reasons but also four from suicide.
Monitoring their wellbeing is difficult due to the sheer numbers of workers but also by improper documentation. Nearly 11,000 of the more than 252,000 Filipino workers in Kuwait are there illegally or are not properly authorized.