The Philippines
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Relatives of Filipina worker Joanna Demafelis hold banners as they wait for the arrival of her body from Manila at Iloilo International Airport, central Philippines, on February 17, 2018. Photo: AFP

Lebanese suspect arrested over death of Filipino killed in Kuwait

One of two suspects in the gruesome death of a Filipino maid whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in a flat in Kuwait has been arrested in Lebanon, the Philippine foreign secretary said on Friday.

Alan Peter Cayetano said he has told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte about the arrest of Lebanese Nader Essam Assaf but added that Assaf’s Syrian wife, who is also a suspect in the death of Joanna Demafelis, is still at large.

The discovery of Demafelis’s body on February 6 in a freezer in Kuwait City, where it had reportedly been kept for more than a year, sparked outrage in the Philippines and refocused attention on the tragic plight of poor Filipinos toiling mostly as maids abroad. It prompted Duterte to ban the deployment of new Filipino workers to Kuwait, where many abuses have been reported.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with the parents of Joanna Demafelis during a wake in the town of Sara, Iloilo province, Philippines. Photo: EPA

Assaf and his wife employed Demafelis. Duterte and other officials have asked Kuwaiti authorities to hunt for the couple.

“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 labour exporter with about a tenth of its more than 100 million people working abroad. The workers have been called the country’s heroes because the income they send home has propped up the Southeast Asian nation’s economy for decades, accounting for about 10 per cent of its annual gross domestic product.

Protesters picket the Senate at the start of the probe into the death of an overseas worker in Kuwait. Photo: AP

Philippine officials are under increasing pressure to do more to monitor the safety of the country’s worldwide diaspora of mostly maids, construction workers and labourers.

Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that he has recalled three Filipino labour officers from Kuwait to face an investigation. They failed 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 that at least 196 Filipinos had died in Kuwait in the last two years, mostly for unspecified medical reasons but also four who committed suicide.

The sheer number of Filipino workers abroad makes monitoring their well-being an overwhelming task. That is often complicated by workers not having proper travel and work documents, such as in Kuwait, where nearly 11,000 of the more than 252,000 Filipino workers are in the country illegally or are not properly authorised.