Lebanon Photo: iStock

The Lebanese employer of a Filipina maid found dead in a freezer in Kuwait has been arrested after a massive manhunt. Joanna Demafelis, 29, was discovered “frozen” in her employers’ abandoned apartment more than a year after she was reported missing.

Her death sparked outrage in the Philippines and prompted the President Rodrigo Duterte to impose a departure ban on Filipinos planning to work in Kuwait, triggering a diplomatic spat between the two countries.

But on Friday the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs announced that Nader Essam Assaf had been arrested in Lebanon on suspicion of murder.

Residents display placards as they wait for the arrival of the body of Joanna Demafelis in her hometown in Iloilo. Photo: Reuters / Erik De Castro

“President [Duterte] welcomes the news that Nader Essam Assaf is now in the hands of authorities in Lebanon,” Alan Cayetano, the Philippines Foreign Secretary, said in a statement.

Assaf was arrested in his home country of Lebanon, but his Syrian wife Mona, who is also a suspect, remains on the run. Both were the subject of an international investigation supported by Interpol.

“Assaf’s arrest is a critical first step in our quest for justice for Joanna,” Foreign Secretary Cayetano said.

Demafelis’ body was found earlier this month in a freezer. She had apparently been tortured, Philippine authorities revealed, in an apartment which had been abandoned for at least a year.

News of the discovery saw the return of more than 1,000 “distressed overseas Filipino workers” in Kuwait, most of whom had been employed as maids, and led to a diplomatic row.

Last week, President Duterte sent a team of labor officials to Kuwait to seek greater protection for migrant workers after imposing a departure ban. “We are thankful to our friends in Kuwait and Lebanon for their assistance,” Cayetano said.

Up to 252,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, many as maids. They are among more than two million Philippine nationals employed in the region, whose remittances are a lifeline for the country’s economy.

About 10 million Filipinos work overseas and their treatment abroad is often a political issue at home. President Duterte is even considering expanding the “deployment ban” to other countries if Filipinos are found to have suffered abuse there.

– with Reuters and AFP

Also read Philippines issues total ban on sending workers to Kuwait

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