One of the two main suspects in the murder of a Filipina maid whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait this month has been arrested, Philippine authorities said Friday.
The murder of Joanna Demafelis prompted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to impose a departure ban for Filipinos planning to work in Kuwait, sparking a diplomatic flap between the two nations.
Duterte has vowed to bring justice to Demafelis’ family, lashing out at the Gulf state and alleging Arab employers routinely rape Filipina workers, force them to work 21 hours a day and feed them scraps.
The Philippines’ foreign affairs department said Kuwait informed Manila on Thursday that Lebanese national Nader Essam Assaf was in custody in Lebanon for Demafelis’ murder.
The 29-year-old Filipina’s body, which allegedly showed signs of torture, was found inside a freezer in the abandoned apartment unit of the arrested suspect and his Syrian wife, who remains on the run.
“President (Duterte) welcomes the news that Nader Essam Assaf is now in the hands of authorities in Lebanon,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano said in a statement.
“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.”
Assaf and his wife have been the subject of an Interpol manhunt since Demafelis’ body was found more than a year after her family reported her missing, the statement said.
Authorities say some 252,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, many as maids. They are among over two million Philippine nationals employed in the region, whose remittances are a lifeline to the Southeast Asian nation’s economy.
About 10 million Filipinos work overseas and their treatment abroad is often a political issue at home.
Duterte this week sent a team of labour officials to Kuwait to seek greater protection for migrant workers.
The president has said he is considering expanding the deployment ban to other countries if Filipinos were found to suffer abuse there.