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Organ trafficking: a deadly trade

Monday, 01 July 2013 07:04 // 9230
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It would be easy to dismiss Sutovic as grief-crazed, desperate to refute claims that her son was a heroin addict who died as a result of his own actions.

Except there is compelling evidence, accepted by human rights organisation Amnesty International, several forensic and medical experts, former senior police officers and, more recently, the Serbian judiciary, that Petar’s death was suspicious.

Prior to these tragic events, Susan Sutovic was a prominent human rights lawyer. Working in Britain, she had gained a reputation for legally assisting those who had opposed the government of former president Slobodan Milosevic. She had many dangerous enemies. So, in July 2004, after repeated prevarications by both the British and Serbian authorities, Susan decided to go to Belgrade herself, with two private detectives, both of whom were former police officers and experts in murder investigations.

The detectives thoroughly examined the apartment in which Petar died and found blood in the bedroom, hall, bathroom and kitchen, suggesting there had been a violent struggle. This conclusion was lent extra weight when Susan finally saw the photographs taken by police on the night Petar died, which showed Petar’s face badly beaten and his bed soaked in blood.

Subsequent tests also revealed that the brown liquid in the spoon on Petar’s bedside table – supposedly heroin – was in actual fact holy oil from Jerusalem that Petar carried with him in a small glass bottle, and the morphine in his blood was not the type produced by heroin, but the type associated with a prescription painkiller, Tramadol, which Petar had been using since a road traffic accident in 2000. Susan believes whoever killed Petar beat him up, changed his clothes, rearranged the room to make it look like he’d taken an overdose and then, at some point, took his heart to sell on the black market.

Before her son died, Sutovic ran a successful legal practice and tells me her life was full and happy. These days she mostly devotes her time to uncovering the truth of Petar's death.

Chain-smoking, Sutovic pushes the police photographs of Petar towards me. “You can see my son,” she says. “Could you believe what they did to me, that the pathologist said there were no injuries? There’s blood everywhere, his nose is badly broken and split at the bridge, there are blood bubbles in the corner of his mouth that suggests he was still alive when the photograph was taken.”

I ask who she believes killed him. “All I know is that he was murdered. I remember Petar saying to me, ‘If you can learn to live in Serbia you can live anywhere in the jungle.’ You expect corruption there. I did not expect I would have to battle for justice here in Britain.”

Last year the first case of illegal organ harvesting in Britain was unveiled by the Salvation Army, which provides support to victims of human trafficking. In a report, the organisation said a criminal gang had brought an unnamed woman into the country with the intention of removing her organs and selling them on to patients desperate for a transplant. It was unclear from the report whether the plot was uncovered before the organ removal took place, but the signs are clear: international organ trafficking is a growing trade.

The growth is down to two factors. First, a reduction in the number of legitimate organs available for transplant – due, in part, to better seatbelt legislation, which has cut the number of healthy young adults dying prematurely in road traffic accidents. And, second, an increase in the number of people waiting for transplants which have become more routine in recent years. As a result, organised criminals can now make a fortune from unethical clinics who will buy a heart, kidney or pancreas for wealthy patients.

It is now possible to order an organ on the internet. It’s also possible, if you are poor, desperate, and willing to part with, say, a kidney, to broker a deal with traffickers. Recent research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that traffickers illegally obtain 7,000 kidneys each year around the world.

Organ trafficking operates in various ways. Victims can be kidnapped and forced to give up an organ; some, out of financial desperation, agree to sell an organ; or they are duped into believing they need an operation and the organ is removed without their knowledge. Some victims are murdered to order if a large sum has been paid in advance. This is what Susan Sutovic thinks happened to her son.

This illegal trade has risen to such a level that an estimated 10,000 black-market operations involving purchased human organs now take place annually – more than one every hour – according to WHO. It estimates that organ trafficking accounts for five to 10 per cent of all kidney transplants worldwide.

Children, especially those from poor backgrounds or children with disabilities, are often targeted. In May this year, an eight-year-old British schoolgirl died at a clinic in India, and her family say they suspect she was “murdered” by medics intent on harvesting her organs. Gurkiren Kaur Loyal’s parents took her to see a doctor in the Punjab, when she began suffering from dehydration, and within seconds of receiving an injection she collapsed and died. During the post mortem, Gurkiren’s organs were removed and have not been returned. The Birmingham coroner told the family that without them, or the Indian post mortem report, he is unable to record a cause of death.

But the most grievous case so far unocovered is in the former Yugoslav republic of Kosovo. Last month five men were convicted of involvement in an organ-trafficking ring that performed at least 24 illegal kidney transplants at the Medicus clinic on the outskirts of the capital, Pristina. Lutfi Dervishi, the clinic’s director, and his son, Arban, were sentenced to eight and seven years respectively. They had promised donor victims about £12,500 each for kidneys that were then sold on the black market for as much as £84,000 a time, but donors had often gone unpaid and, in the words of the lead prosecutor, Jonathan Ratel, were “literally cast aside at the airport”.

The case came to light in late 2008 when a young Turkish man, Yilmaz Altun, collapsed at Pristina airport before boarding a flight to Istanbul. Doctors discovered a large, fresh wound on his abdomen and he later admitted he’d struck a deal with the clinic to have his left kidney removed. When police arrived at Medicus they found an elderly Israeli man on his way to the operating theatre to receive Altun’s kidney. Most of the organs harvested by Medicus had been sold to recipients in Israel, Canada, Poland and Germany.

Eulex, Europe’s rule of law mission to Kosovo, which brought the case, is now investigating whether any government figures were involved in the scandal.Nato documents, leaked in 2011, claimed Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaçi, was the head of a “mafia-like” network responsible for organ trafficking and other criminal activities.

Lutfi Dervishi, who was convicted of illegally harvesting organs at his Medicus clinic, in Kosovo

Prices vary, but a heart can fetch up to £1million. And parts are not only used for transplants; there is a demand for illicit experimentation on whole cadavers by unethical scientists, as well as a market in hip and knee replacements. Penises and foetuses have been used in juju rituals, also known as “black magic”, and used to instill terror into vulnerable victims. Last year a Nigerian-born man living in Kent was convicted of trafficking children into prostitution whom he had initially subjected to juju.

In Britain, it is illegal to sell an organ, although some desperate folk have been tempted. (With at least a million people worldwide waiting for a kidney transplant at any given time, the demand is unquestionably out there.)

One man attempted to sell his kidney on eBay, only to have it pulled by the site – but not before the price reached $5,750. And in 2011, 24-year-old Nicky Johnson, from Stockport, placed an advert on a Russian website, offering to donate a kidney “if the money was right”. One of more than a dozen Brits on the site, Johnson said he would travel abroad for surgery. The operation takes up to three hours and requires a two-day stay in hospital. Post-operative infection is a serious risk.

In one of the most tragic cases to come to light, a disabled single mother in Spain was found attempting to auction off one of her kidneys, corneas, a lung and a piece of her liver online because she cannot afford her monthly rent and is facing eviction.

The inquest into the death of Petar Sutovic opened in London in 2004. An open verdict was recorded after concluding Petar had died from an overdose of morphine. “It was the wrong result, and not based on the evidence available,” says Sutovic. After a two-year campaign, during which she, along with private detectives, gathered huge amounts of new information, Susan was granted a second inquest, which she hoped would return a verdict of unlawful killing. But the inquest never happened, because legal arguments ensued about whether or not it was necessary to exhume Petar’s body.

The newly appointed coroner had applied for exhumation of the body after the Metropolitan Police gave the view that it was crucial to any new investigation. But Sutovic, supported by Petar’s brother and father, strongly opposed the move on religious grounds. The family argued that the truth about Petar’s death could be established by evidence that had already been put before the coroner, as well as by other avenues of inquiry that would not require a third post mortem. To date, over £1 million of public funds have been spent arguing about the inquests and exhumation.

Today, Susan Sutovic continues her fight for justice and has instructed Belgrade-based lawyer Djuro Cepic to represent her. Cepic tells me he is hopeful that the truth will soon emerge, and that the Serbian High Court has just granted his request to open a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding Petar’s death. “This is very good because it will involve interviewing the doctors who first dealt with this young man’s body, hopefully with myself and Ms Sutovic present,” says Cepic.

I ask Sutovic what it is she hopes for. She answers clearly and without hesitation. “I can’t bring my son back but he has a right to a soul, to rest in peace. This was a young man in the prime of his life, and I know he did not die of an overdose, and there are those out there who know the truth. How can either of us rest until we find out exactly what happened on that night?”

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Last modified on Monday, 27 January 2014 11:06
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