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Suspects in Kuwait murder of Filipina maid detained in Syria

At least 196 Filipinos have died in Kuwait in the past two years, mostly for unspecified medical reasons
Filipina maids working in Kuwait attend meeting at their embassy in Kuwait City on Saturday (AFP)

The employers of a Filipina maid found dead in a freezer in Kuwait were both arrested in the Syrian capital Damascus, Lebanese and Philippine officials 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, a Lebanese judicial official said.

The murder of Joanna Demafelis sparked outrage in the Philippines and prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to impose a departure ban on Filipinos planning to work in Kuwait.

The Philippines is a major labour exporter, with about one in 20 of its more than 40 million working population working abroad, according to the Associated Press. The income they send home sustains the Southeast Asian nation’s economy, accounting for about 10 percent of its annual gross domestic product.

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 two suspects have been the subject of an Interpol manhunt since Demafelis' body was found more than a year after her family reported her missing.

"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.

Syrian national

"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 travelling on to neighbouring Syria.

The Philippines' foreign affairs department also confirmed the second arrest in a statement late Saturday.

"With the two suspects now in custody, [the Philippine authorities] will follow President Duterte's instructions to vigorously pursue justice for Demafelis," foreign affairs secretary Alan Cayetano said.

Duterte has vowed to bring justice to Demafelis's family, lashing out at Gulf state Kuwait and alleging Arab 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.

Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration reported at least 196 Filipinos had died in Kuwait in the past two years, mostly for unspecified medical reasons, AP reported.

Duterte this week sent a team of labour officials to Kuwait to seek greater protection for migrant workers.