The employers of a Filipina maid found dead in a freezer in Kuwait were both arrested in the Syrian capital Damascus, a Lebanese judicial official said on Saturday.
Syrian authorities surrendered Nader Essam Assaf to Beirut on Friday because of his Lebanese citizenship but his Syrian wife Mona remains in custody in Damascus, the official said.
Lebanese security and judicial officials say authorities in Beirut are interrogating a man who is suspected in the death of the Filipina maid.
A senior official with Lebanon's General Security Directorate refused to provide details other than that the man is being held by the agency and undergoing questioning.
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 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.
The 29-year-old’s body, which allegedly showed signs of torture, was found earlier this month inside a freezer in the abandoned apartment unit of the detained couple.
The couple have been the subject of an Interpol manhunt since Demafelis’s body was found more than a year after her family reported her missing.
Arrested in Damascus
“The couple were arrested in Damascus. They were the subject of an Interpol red notice and the Syrian authorities handed the husband over to Lebanese custody on Friday morning,” the official said.
“Syria kept custody of the wife because she is a Syrian national,” he added.
“Lebanon has asked Kuwait to pass on the husband’s police record.”
The official said that after leaving Kuwait, the couple had made a very brief stopover in Lebanon before traveling on to neighboring Syria.
Duterte has vowed to bring justice to Demafelis’s family, lashing out at the Gulf state and alleging employers routinely rape Filipina workers, force them to work 21 hours a day and feed them scraps.
Kuwait has said it is investigating reported deaths and abuses, and insisted there were only a small number considering that there are more than 250,000 Filipinos working in the emirate.
Duterte this week sent a team of labor officials to Kuwait to seek greater protection for migrant workers.
On Friday, the Philippine foreign secretary had announced that the male suspect had been arrested. 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 was also a suspect in the death of Joanna Demafelis, remains at large.
With the latest update from Lebanon, it is clear that both the suspects are now under custody.
Assaf and his wife employed Demafelis. Duterte and other officials hadasked 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 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.