Joanna Demafelis is seen in this image taken from her Facebook profile.

KUWAIT: Kuwait's ministries of interior and foreign affairs assured the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait following a meeting yesterday with the ambassador that a manhunt is underway to arrest the perpetrators in the death of Joanna Daniela Demafelis. The 29-year-old Filipina domestic helper's body was found inside a freezer in an apartment in Maidan Hawally last week. Her body was reportedly kept in the freezer for more than a year and was only discovered when police entered the apartment after a court order to open the apartment was issued and it was searched. The renters, a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife, left Kuwait in Nov 2016.

"The assistant minister for consulate affairs and the department of security affairs of the interior ministry has assured us that arrests will be made, especially of the prime suspects. They are looking into leads of the whereabouts of the Lebanese man and his Syrian wife. They told me that if the suspects are in Lebanon, they can be extradited to Kuwait probably within two weeks," Philippine Ambassador Rene Villa told Kuwait Times. "However, if the suspects are in Syria, the interior ministry has admitted that it will be very hard for them to make any arrests since Syria is currently in the midst of a civil war. We pray for the quick arrest of the perpetrators," he added.

The remains of Demafelis are still at the forensic department of the interior ministry. "We are trying our best to return the body back to her family, as requested by them. The body has signs of torture and broken bones. So, definitely she was killed before she was placed in the freezer," Villa said. Demafelis came to Kuwait in 2014 to work as a domestic helper. She spoke with her family on a few occasions in the first year, but there were no further contacts. Reports allege that Joanna's employer Nader Essam Assaf is a Lebanese national wanted over cases related to falsified cheques.

The Philippine labor minister said yesterday more than 2,200 Filipinos are ready to take up President Rodrigo Duterte's offer to repatriate workers from Kuwait due to reports of abuse. Duterte asked Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific on Friday to provide flights for Filipinos who want to leave Kuwait after the body of Demafelis was found. "We have been informed that as of Friday there were 2,200-plus Filipinos who are willing to go home," Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III told Reuters, adding that some of them had overstayed their visas and applied for an amnesty.

The airlines have arranged free charter flights, and Bello said almost 500 Filipino workers were due to arrive soon. The government would help repatriated workers look for jobs, Bello said. "We are into a reintegration program, we have a program in place for them," he told the ANC news channel. "They will be given a livelihood. We are now in the process of looking for alternative markets. One of them is China and even Russia," he said, without elaborating.

Informed sources at the Civil Aviation Directorate stressed that Filipinos who departed from Kuwait international airport yesterday were mainly illegal residents who chose to leave without paying any fines during the ongoing amnesty. The source explained that 410 Filipinos left yesterday and that 350 of them were illegal residents, while the other 60 departed for their annual holidays and not in response to the calls made by Duterte to leave Kuwait. "Philippines Airlines flights are still scheduled for every three days," the sources added.

The news of Demafelis' gruesome murder comes amid a growing dispute between Kuwait and the Philippines over widespread abuse and mistreatment of Filipina domestic workers here. Manila, at the request of Duterte, recently implemented a ban on new recruits from working in Kuwait. Currently, there are approximately 265,000 Filipino workers in Kuwait, with around 165,000 working as domestic helpers.

Meanwhile, the interior ministry categorically denied rumors circulating on social media claiming that police are arresting Filipina domestic workers from their sponsors' homes and sending them to the Philippine Embassy to be deported later. The ministry described the rumors as 'baseless' and reiterated its respect for all expatriate communities in Kuwait, as well as its commitment to adhering to the law.

By Ben Garcia and Agencies