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Viral 'Rescue' Videos Ignite Dispute Between Philippines And Kuwait

Renato Villa, the Philippine ambassador to Kuwait, speaks during a press conference at the embassy in Kuwait City last week.

Philippine authorities say they have conveyed to Kuwait their "strong surprise and great displeasure" over the Gulf country's decision to expel their envoy within a week. The expulsion announced Wednesday aims to punish Ambassador Renato Pedro Villa for the release of several viral videos last week that purported to depict the rescue of Filipino domestic workers.

In the videos, which an official with the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs posted online, a man and woman hurry into the black SUV apparently waiting to whisk them away. The scene, in the words of one prominent Filipino blogger, shows staff of the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait leading "an abused Household Service Worker (HSW) to safety, after she reported that she was repeatedly kicked by her abusive employer."

"Legal action shall follow," added R.J. Nieto, better known by his blog's name, Thinking Pinoy. He noted that the video showed just one of several such "rescues" in the past two weeks.

Nieto was not alone in publicly posting the videos. Several media outlets, including the Rappler news site, also did so — but none quite earned the attention his Facebook page did. By Thursday, roughly a week after its release, Nieto's spliced-together version of the videos had drawn more than 430,000 views.

It also drew Kuwait's ire.

According to the BBC, the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing the Embassy of "smuggling Filipino maids in flagrant violation of Kuwait's laws and international diplomatic rules."

And Kuwaiti officials on Wednesday declared Villa persona non grata and demanded his departure, while also detaining four individuals hired by the Philippine Embassy and issuing warrants for the arrest of several more.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, for his part, apologized earlier this week before the Kuwaiti declaration, saying he was sorry if authorities there "were offended by some actions taken by the Philippine Embassy staff."

"This was all done in the spirit of emergency action to protect Filipinos," he added.

But on Thursday, during a news conference after the expulsion order, Cayetano said he is still awaiting clarification from his Kuwaiti counterparts, who he said had assured him Villa's job was safe. "I am disturbed," he added, "because, remember, the ambassador is representing his country."

Nevertheless, he said Villa would return to the Philippines, per Kuwaiti wishes.

Cayetano noted that 262,000 Filipinos live in Kuwait, more than 150,000 of whom work in household services. The New York Times reports that concerns for these workers "have circulated for years" but have been particularly inflamed in recent months, when a Filipino maid's body was found in a freezer in February, showing signs of torture.

Her employer eventually confessed to the murder, but ill feelings continue to simmer over the incident. And on Thursday, Cayetano reasserted the Philippines' right to look out for its citizens abroad.

"Each and every life is important to us," he said, "and the directive of the president is to protect the OFW [overseas Filipino workers] and, if there are cases of abuse, to do everything and anything to protect them."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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