By Argyll Cyrus Geducos and Vanne Elaine Terrazola
Malacañang welcomed the decision of the Kuwait Criminal Court to sentence to death by hanging the Lebanese and Syrian employers of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) Joanna Demafelis over the weekend.
The Kuwait Criminal Court handed down the death sentence to the couple after being convicted for killing Demafelis. Demafelis was beaten to death by her employers and was stuffed inside a freezer that was left inside an abandoned apartment unit for a year in Kuwait in early February 2018.
But despite the positive development on the case of Demafelis, Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that the total deployment ban of OFWs to Kuwait will still be in place even if President Duterte had said that he would lift the ban if justice is served on Demafelis.
“I think that is very specific to a particular case. We have to think about the others who are similarly situated,” Guevarra said.
Demafelis’ employers, Lebanese Nader Essam Assaf and his Syrian wife Mona Hassoum were arrested in Syria in February, 2018 following an Interpol manhunt.
Guevarra said President Duterte may have already heard of the news and asked the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to confirm the reports.
“By this time the President might have heard that news that was picked up abroad. And the directive given by the President was for the DFA, through the mission in Kuwait, to find out, to verify whether in fact if such an event took place,” he said during the Palace press briefing Monday.
“Of course the President, I suppose the entire Filipino people, will be happy to know that that is true. Siyempre (Of course) that’s what we want – justice for Demafelis. So let’s hope that in fact, that is true and that the couple will actually be apprehended and brought to the bars of justice,” he added.
Guevarra said that since the couple is not in Kuwait, they can avail of the legal assistance of Lebanon and Syria, if Kuwait has an extradition treaty with the two countries.
“Well, that [handing justice to the couple] really belongs to the realm of Kuwaiti law. So if they have probably some extradition treaty with any country kung saan makikita yung mga hinahanap (where the accused are), then probably they’ll avail themselves of such mutual legal assistance, if possible,” he said.
Guevarra said the main consideration for the ban to be lifted is when a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the welfare of OFWs between the Philippines and Kuwait is finally signed.
“(T)he total ban on sending OFWs to Kuwait is still on. But of course, an agreement, a memorandum of understanding is being formulated and hopefully, the state parties will come to terms as to how our OFWs in Kuwait, as well as in other Middle Eastern countries, will be protected. So basically that will be a solution to this total ban about sending OFWs to Kuwait,” Guevarra said.
“I think it’s still the agreement between the countries in the manner of treating our OFWs that will matter. Not the matter of the couple being brought to justice,” he added.
In mid-March, President Duterte revealed that the government was already working on the final draft of the document which will be brought by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to Kuwait.
According to the President, he demanded that the agreement will be a contract of government to government which seeks to improve the working conditions of OFWs in Kuwait.
“There will be some mandatory provisions like they should be allowed to sleep at least seven hours a day,” Duterte said in a speech in Silang, Cavite last month.
“That they will be fed nutritious food. And that I will not — we will not allow leftovers to be eaten by our countrymen. Palutuin sila ng kanila (They should be allowed to cook their own meals),” he added.
Duterte also said that he demanded that there will be no confiscation of passports by the employers of the OFWs.
“If at all, it will be surrendered diyan sa table sa (at the) arrivals [section] of any country where the Filipinos are working in numbers,” he said.
He added that he also demanded that OFWs be allowed to take holidays off or holiday pay.
Duterte has fumed over the death of Demafelis and slammed the Kuwaiti government for being “oblivious” about the abuses and maltreatment OFWs are experiencing from their employers in their territory, pointing out that the Philippines did not do anything wrong to Kuwait.
The death of Demafelis prompted Duterte to implement a total non-deployment ban of new OFWs to Kuwait, and to order the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to facilitate the repatriation of all OFWs who want to go home within 72 hours.
The President also revealed that the government is now performing an audit on countries where OFWs are reportedly experiencing “brutal treatment and human degradation” from their employers.
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III welcomed on Monday the conviction of the couple believed to be responsible for the death of 29-year-old Joana Demafelis in Kuwait, but said there is “much more to do” in ensuring the protection of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Gulf states.
“We’re thankful that justice has been served for Joanna. Our task now is to ensure that such incidents never happen again. We need further high level talks and consultations with our countrymen’s host states in the Middle East to ensure that diplomatic, administrative and legal mechanisms are in place for OFW protection,” Pimentel said in a statement.
While calling it a “good development,” the Senate chief noted the need in getting the commitment of countries in the Middle East to put in place measures that would protect OFWs in their land.
“We have so much more to do in directly engaging the Gulf States as far as protecting the safety and welfare of our OFWs are concerned,” Pimentel said.
He also believed that the deployment ban on all OFWs to Kuwait should stay, stressing that Demafelis’ case is only one of the about 200 deaths in the said country alone. “The rest should be explained too and justice (should be) rendered.”
“Let’s look at the bigger picture again. Our focus should be protection of OFW rights and welfare, of course balanced with the respect for local laws and traditions. It’s sometimes a delicate balancing act that’s why we need constant engagement with the host state,” Pimentel added.
Before going on recess late last month, the Senate had adopted a resolution calling on the Palace to ban the deployment of Filipino household workers to countries that do not afford migrants the same rights and work conditions as their nationals and allow the confiscation of Philippine passports.
The Senate chief, however, said he is confident that the latest development on Demafelis’ death will “normalize” the tension between the Philippines and Kuwait.
“Urgent now is the mending of ties. We see Kuwait as a partner. We benefit mutually from sending our OFWs to Kuwait, and it’s in the best interest of both countries to continue resolving matters relating to reported work abuses, repatriation, lack of documentation and other key issues affecting Filipino workers there,” he said.
It was estimated that 252,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait. The Philippine embassy has reported that 4,000 OFWs without the necessary paperwork have already been repatriated, with another 6,000 awaiting amnesty from the Kuwaiti government.
Extradition to Kuwait
ILOILO CITY – The family of slain Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) Joanna Demafelis is reiterating the call for the extradition of the husband and wife killers to Kuwait.
Joejet Demafelis, the oldest brother of Joanna, told Manila Bulletin that Lebanese Nader Essam Assaf and his Syrian wife Mona Hassoun should be taken to Kuwait to face punishment.
The Demafelis family of Sara, Iloilo province is still appealing to the Duterte administration to ask both the governments of Lebanon and Syria to turn over Assaf and Hassoun respectively to Kuwaiti authorities.
Joejet also said the family is awaiting word from Secretaries Silvestre Bello III of Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and Alan Peter Cayetano of Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) if they would be allowed to fly to Kuwait.
Crisanto and Eva, Joanna’s parents, earlier expressed their wish to personally see the couple who killed their daughter. (With a report from Tara Yap)