Chinese accused of selling criminals' bodies

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New York authorities confirmed yesterday that they had arrested two men on charges of conspiring to sell human organs for transplant, including kidneys, corneas, livers and skin, taken from convicts executed in China.

The arrests point to a lucrative trade in organs removed from Chinese convicts at their hour of execution and sold at steeply discounted prices to buyers in Western nations. The number of executions in China has risen sharply recently to about 6,000 a year.

Through the pair arrested in New York, for example, an American patient could receive a new kidney in a Chinese hospital for between $20,000 (pounds 12,500) and $30,000, far less than would be the case in an American hospital. No questions would be asked about the origin of the kidneys.

The men, one of whom is believed to be a former public prosecutor from the Chinese province of Hainan, were snared in a sting last week. An agent of the FBI met them and pretended to be a medical executive looking to purchase organs for transplant.

The arrests may provide the US with a first documented case of what Chinese dissidents and rights organisations have been telling Western governments for years: that Peking has allowed an international trade in organs taken from inmates to grow unimpeded and even to flourish. The accused are Cheng Yong Wang and Xingqi Fu. Prosecutors said Mr Wang described himself as a former Hainan prosecutor, while Mr Fu said he operated a New York laundry.

Among those who have long urged action against China on the issue has been Amnesty International in London. The entrapment of the men in New York was set in train by the dissident Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in Chinese prisons and is now an American citizen.

Mr Wu met the two men on 13 February, also masquerading as a potential customer. He had a camcorder concealed in a box and taped the encounter. He passed the tape to the FBI, which felt impelled to arrange its own sting.

Mr Wu said he had been told by the pair that they could get access to the organs of at least a quarter of the roughly 200 inmates who are executed in Hainan each year. In the subsequent meeting with the FBI agent the men first offered to supply just kidneys and to arrange for US patients to have transplant operations in China. They also told the agent they could provide him with corneas at $5,000 a pair and boasted that they could also offer pancreases, lungs and skin.

According to court papers, the men also assured the FBI agent that any lungs they would supply to him "would come from non-smokers".

If the charges are made to stick in court, the case could spur Washington into making a formal approach to Peking about putting a stop to the trade.

A spokesman for the US State Department told the New York Times: "We're naturally concerned about these allegations, and we're looking into it".