By Ben Rosario
The Kuwait Court may have already sentenced to death by hanging a Lebanese and his Syrian wife believed responsible for the death of overseas Filipino worker (OFW) Joanna Demafelis, but is Lebanon ready to implement the verdict?
A skeptical Rep. Aniceto “John” Bertiz III, a congressman representing the OFW sector, raised this question as he warned that until there’s solid proof that the death verdict on Lebanese Nader Essam Assaf and his Syrian wife Mouna Hassoun has been carried, there remains no reason to celebrate that justice has already been served.
“Can the Department of Foreign Affairs [DFA] or (the Philippine) embassy personnel in Lebanon testify that they saw Assaf in the custody of Lebanese authorities? Is Lebanon willing to implement the reported death sentence and allow Filipinos to witness it?” asked Bertiz.
Bertiz, of ACTS-OFW Partylist, said there is little likelihood that Lebanon will carry out the death sentence since it had earlier refused to extradite the suspects to Kuwait where the crime was committed. Assaf and Hassoum were arrested in Syria over Demafelis’ death in February, 2018, following an Interpol manhunt but Lebanon declined to extradite them to Kuwait.
Demafelis was reportedly beaten by her employers and her body was later found stuffed inside a freezer left in an abandoned apartment unit in Kuwait.
Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that since the couple is not in Kuwait, the Kuwaiti government may avail itself of the legal assistance of Lebanon and Syria, if it 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,” Guevarra said.
Joejet Demafelis, the eldest brother of Joanna, said Assaf and Hassoun should be extradited to Kuwait to face the punishment.
While Bertiz remains skeptical, Malacañang and Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III welcomed the Kuwait Court verdict.
“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,” Guevarra said.
The DFA is now waiting for a formal notification from Kuwaiti authorities regarding the death verdict.
Nevertheless, it welcomed this “very important development” in the quest for justice for Demafelis.
“We take note of the swift action taken by Kuwaiti authorities in connection with the murder of our kababayan Joanna Demafelis,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said in a statement issued Monday.
“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.
Despite the positive development on the case of Demafelis, Guevarra said the total deployment ban of OFWs to Kuwait will remain 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.
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.
While calling it a “good development,” Pimentel 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.
“We hope the memorandum of understanding between the Philippines and Kuwait for the greater protection of overseas Filipino workers will be signed,” Senator Grace Poe said in a statement Monday.
“Swift and sure justice is what Joanna Demafelis deserves. But the search for justice should not stop in its tracks until all those responsible for the fate of Joanna are punished,” she said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson echoed this sentiment, saying the death sentence in absentia of the couple will be “victory for Joanna’s family and the Filipino people until the execution of the sentence is finally carried out.”
“Then and only then we can claim justice is served,”Lacson added.
“We sincerely hope that this would not just be a paper victory, the husband and wife is not under Kuwait custody, they should be made to face the consequence of what they have done in Kuwait before we can even think of any talk with the family of Demafelis for forgiveness,” said Sen. Joel Villanueva, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor, Employment, and Human Resources Development.
“Hoping that justice would soon be served for Joanna Demafelis. Let this be a deterrent for those who would think of abusing our overseas Filipino workers in the future,”Sen. JV Ejercito said.
Task Force Joanna
Meanwhile, Bertiz called on the DFA and the Department of Justice to create task force to monitor the progress of the Demafelis case and make sure that the culprits are punished.
He said the creation of “Task Force Justice for Joanna” is needed considering that the case involves three countries.
“The creation of the task force signals the commitment of the Philippine government to obtain justice for Joanna at all costs by monitoring and following up on the different aspects of the case in all three locations,” he said.
Bertiz said the DOJ’s role is crucial because the owner of the recruitment agency of Demafelishas yet to surface.
“We are calling on the owner of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Global Solutions to surrender himself and disclose the manner by which Joanna had been recruited,” Bertizsaid. (With reports from Argyll B. Geducos, Vanne P. Terrazola, Roy C. Mabasa, and Tara Yap)