Suspect in Joanna Demafelis' murder in Lebanese custody

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Story updated to include statements of the Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 23) — The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said a principal suspect in the murder of overseas Filipino worker Joanna Demafelis is now in the custody of Lebanese authorities.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said in a Friday statement that he has informed President Rodrigo Duterte about the arrest of Nader Essam Assaf, a Lebanese national.

"The President welcomes the news that Nader Essam Assaf is now in the hands of authorities in Lebanon," Cayetano said. "Assaf's arrest is a critical first step in our quest for justice for Joanna and we are thankful to our friends in Kuwait and Lebanon for their assistance."

Assaf and his Syrian wife Mona are the suspects in the death of 29-year-old Demafelis, whose body was found inside a freezer in an apartment in Kuwait, where it may have been kept for over a year.

Read: Body of Filipina found in freezer in Kuwait

The DFA said the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait reported Assaf's arrest to Manila on Thursday, the same day that Duterte visited Demafelis' wake.

Related: Body of slain OFW Joanna Demafelis arrives in Sara, Iloilo

Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait Renato Villa told CNN Philippines "Newsroom" on Friday that he received information about the arrest from a security official at the Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior.

"He said he received communication from Lebanese Interpol that the suspect is now in the custody of Lebanese authorities," he said. "But the Syrian wife is still at large."


Villa also said they expect to receive from Kuwaiti authorities the official report on the arrest, as well as the autopsy report on Demafalis' body, by next week.

Authorities said Demafelis had torture marks on her body and there were indications she was strangled to death.

Initial investigation showed Assaf is wanted for cases related to falsified cheques.

Villa said Assaf's mother told Kuwaiti media that her son could not do such a crime.

"She visited the couple here in Kuwait, but she left because she could not take the supposed physical abuse done by the Syrian wife against Joanna like banging her on the wall and hurting her," he said.

Villa said Assaf faces death by hanging in Kuwait if proven guilty of killing Demafelis.