KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait -- (UPDATED) A Kuwaiti court on Sunday sentenced in absentia a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife to death by hanging over the murder of a Filipina maid, a judicial source said.
The court issued the sentence in the first hearing in the case of Joanna Demafelis, the 29-year-old maid whose body was found in a freezer in Kuwait earlier this year.
The sentencing can still be appealed if the couple returns to Kuwait, the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Demafelis murder triggered a diplomatic crisis between Kuwait and the Philippines, prompting Manila to impose a departure ban for its citizens planning to work in the Gulf state.
The Lebanese-Syrian couple was arrested in February in the Syrian capital Damascus following an Interpol manhunt.
Syrian authorities handed the husband, Nader Essam Assaf, over to Lebanese authorities, while his Syrian wife remained in custody in Damascus.
An estimated 252,000 Filipinos and Filipinas work in Kuwait and depend on remittances to help their families back home.
Rights groups have raised alarm around the plight of workers in the Gulf and other Arab countries, where migrant labor is regulated under a system known as "kafala."
The kafala, or sponsorship, system ties migrant workers' visas to their employers, prohibiting workers from leaving or changing jobs without prior consent.
Meanwhile, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III welcomed the "swift justice" for Demafelis' death.
He also reiterated that this recent development, along with the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Kuwait, can prompt the partial lifting of the deployment ban to the country.
"This, plus the signing of the MOU may give me the reason to recommend to the President the partial lifting of the total deployment ban," Bello said in a statement.
© Agence France-Presse