How big business bankrolls the sick trade in human body parts

Organs for sale - Israeli patients pay £100,000 a time for illegal transplants in Istanbul
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The Independent Online

In Europe's poorest country a predatory trade in body parts is flourishing ­ paid for in part by Israeli health insurance companies ­ in order to feed the surging demand for transplant organs.

The sale of body parts is illegal in every country except China and Iran. But an investigation reveals that the production line starts in Europe's most impoverished country, the republic of Moldova, and ends up in Israel, via Turkey.

One of the victims of this cruel trade, called Sergei, described how an agent in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, tricked him into surrendering a kidney two years ago, after luring him to Turkey with the promise of a job.

When the job failed to materialise, the agent, Nina Scobiola, said Sergei would have to sell blood to raise the bus fare back home. She guided him to a private hospital on the outskirts of Istanbul and a jab in the arm followed. "My whole body was aching," he said, when he came round. "I couldn't get up. I had a feeling that something was missing inside me."

As the anaesthetic wore off, Sergei said, the agent simply walked into the hospital room and said: "We've taken a kidney. There's nothing you can do. I'll give you £1,800 for it. Otherwise, get yourself out of your predicament on your own."

Sergei took the money and returned to Moldova. "Six months later, all I had left to remind me was a stamp in my passport and a pain in my left side."

The racket run by Ms Scobiola in Istanbul and a second Nina in the village of Mingir is well known to the Moldovan police, and has left many young men in the region with only one kidney. Most sell them voluntarily. "I am ashamed that we are doing this. We are a disgrace to our country but there is no other way out of the situation," said one villager, Vladimir, who willingly sold his kidney.

The situation in post-Soviet Moldova, a country squashed between Romania and Ukraine, is one of no jobs and no prospects. If a young man wants to marry or buy a house he has only one asset of commercial value to the world ­ his body parts.

Veleriu Galit, of Moldova's Department of Organised Crime, said the "Two Ninas", as they are called, have the trade sewn up. One procures the men in Moldovan villages. Then she calls Ms Scobiola in Turkey. "Once Scobiola gives the go-ahead, Nina puts them on a bus to Turkey where the operations are carried out," said Mr Galit. "The doctors are Turkish. The recipients are mainly Israeli."

The donors all remember the doctor who carried out the operation. Yusuf Somnez is a kidney surgeon, trained at the Istanbul University Hospital, who darts from one private clinic to another as the police close in. After a Turkish television documentary in 1997 exposed his activities, the Istanbul Health Authority banned him for life from working in the public health sector. To pre-empt him, they refuse to license any private clinic in the city to carry out kidney transplant operations. But Dr Somnez keeps going.

Ayan Mimaroglu, of the Turkish fraud squad, said the doctor was a shrewd operator. "He gets the donors to sign papers saying that they are donating their organs voluntarily." He is ideally situated in Istanbul, with an infinite supply of desperately poor, potential donors in impoverished Moldova to the north and a queue of desperately ill kidney patients in wealthy Israel, to the south-east. One donor said he overheard a nurse saying 35 Israelis were waiting in Istanbul for a new kidney from Dr Somnez. Each one was being charged £100,000.

Professor Jonathan Halevy, director of the Israeli Transplant Centre in Tel Aviv, said he was embarrassed that his compatriots had created this production line. Israel has a donor problem, he said, as few carry donor cards, owing to "a deep-seated belief among most Israelis that they must go whole to the grave".

Mike Levinsky was one of the first to go to Istanbul to be operated on by Dr Somnez. "I was aware that to pay for a kidney transplant is illegal everywhere," he said. He did not meet the donor, even though he was in the adjacent room at the hospital. Was he curious about the man whose part he has inside him? "No."

Israeli insurance companies, known as Sick Funds, are partly financed by the government. As a result, public money is helping to finance illegal kidney transplants abroad. Professor Halevy admitted this. "I can't deny it and I condemn it," he said. "But the Sick Funds are facing an enrolee who says: 'I have no chance of a transplant in Israel ­ at least pay me what you would have paid my hospital in Israel.' They give him the money, usually about £25,000, towards buying a new kidney."

The sale of body parts remains anathema to most medical establishments, although some doctors say that with 5,000 patients waiting for kidney transplants in the UK, the idea should be discussed.

Back in Moldova, the donors are not reconciled to their loss. "What can I say to the Israeli who got my kidney?" Sergei said. "Even though they got it through deceit, what is done is done. Let him be healthy, but let it be on his conscience."