Interview 14 Sep 12

Medicus Clinic Was ‘Part of Wider Crime Syndicate’

The clinic at the centre of organ-trafficking claims in Kosovo was just part of a wider international racket dealing in transplanted organs, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, director of Organs Watch, says.

Fatmir Aliu

The director and co-founder of Organs Watch, an organization dedicated to research on the global traffic in human organs, told BIRN that two former clients of the Medicus clinic near Pristina had identified Yusuf Sonmez as the key figure in what she describes as a major organization based in Israel and Turkey, with many additional outlets across the world.

“The organized criminal syndicate begins with Sonmez and his Israeli partner in the 1990s,” she says.

The Medicus case centres on allegations that poor donors were induced to sell their kidneys to the clinic, which then sold them on to rich clients.

The EU rule of law mission, EULEX, in 2010 indicted seven Kosovo Albanians and two foreigners, one of whom is Sonmez, who is Turkish, with human trafficking, organised crime and unlawful medical activities. 

The accused include the alleged ringleader in Kosovo, the clinic’s owner, Professor Lutfi Dervishi.

The Kosovars named in the indictment were allegedly aided by Sonmez, who is wanted on organ trafficking charges in several countries. 

While the Turkish authorities are prosecuting him for the alleged offences in Kosovo, Sonmez remains at liberty in his native Turkey.

The prosecution says that Moshe Harel, an Israeli of Turkish origin, acted as one of the cartel’s fixers, finding both donors and recipients and handling funds.

The Medicus clinic allegedly lured poor people from Istanbul, Moscow, Moldova and Kazakhstan, falsely promising to pay them up to €15,000 for their organs. Some received no payment at all.

The indictment says that 30 operations involving illegal kidney transplants took place at the clinic in 2008.

Scheper-Hughes says that the first man she interviewed, who she calls David, a wealthy client from California in the US, paid roughly $200,000 for the kidney transplant.

“David” travelled from the US to Israel and then Turkey with the plan to go on to Kosovo, she says.

But she says the broker then informed him that police had raided the clinic. The broker offered David another option. 

“He had to pay, a second time, another $120,000, to go to Baku in Azerbaijan; he didn’t even know where this place was,” she recalls. 

“This man was a businessman with little international experience; he didn’t know where he was. He had no idea who he was getting a kidney from. He is lucky he survived.”

Sonmez was arrested in Istanbul in January 2011 but was later released on bail. 

His alleged Israeli fixer, Moshe Harel, was arrested on May 25 in Israel. But the director of Organs Watch says he, too, has since been released.

The Medicus clinic was also named in a December 2010 Council of Europe report, which alleges that senior members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, several of whom are now in the Kosovo government, traded the organs of people taken prisoner during the 1999 Kosovo conflict.

Scheper-Hughes believes that such organ harvesting could have taken place in 1999, but says the case still lacks sufficient evidence. 

She says that the building in Albania named in the report as a key site, known as the “Yellow House”, may have been a prisoner of war transit centre.

The victims, she says were “a small number of Serbian former fighters, or perhaps just civilians and minorities at the end of the war, leftovers as you might say."

“It is wrong, however, to speak about Serbs being murdered for their organs. It was really a question of killing Serbs [in retaliation for the war] and then allegedly taking advantage of their bodies with the assistance of trained medical staff harvesting their organs,” she says.

“According to my sources, the kidneys were taken to airport in Albania and shipped to Turkey,” she adds. 

She says that there is no evidence that Somnez was present at the Yellow House or any of the other KLA’s alleged detention centres but he may have received the removed kidneys. 

“Through his contacts and intermediaries, he might have been aware of the situation and was perhaps, therefore, in contact with people in the KLA who might have suggested that, as a surgeon, he could help out, or the more likely scenario, that he was the recipient of organs that were taken as plunder,” she suggested.

Former KLA leaders have denied having had any knowledge of, or having played any role in, organ trafficking operations during the war.

On Monday, Serbia’s state television station, RTS, broadcast an interview with a man who claimed he had been a KLA fighter during the war.

He told RTS he had personally removed a prisoner's heart for the black market in organs during the 1990s Kosovo conflict. 

Serbian prosecutors say the victim was a Serbian prisoner, and the operation was carried out near the northern Albanian town of Kukes.

An EU-led team investigating the claims about organ trafficking said it would consult Serbian prosecutors on the witness at their next meeting.

Scheper-Hughes first heard about Yusef Sonmez through his Israeli partner at meetings of the Bellagio International Task Force on organ trafficking in 1996. 

In 1999, Scheper-Hughes sent a Turkish Organs Watch assistant to interview Sonmez. In that interview Sonmez spoke of being accused of stealing organs from dead and dying persons brought into emergency rooms in Istanbul following the 1999 earthquake there. 

Although he denied that he was responsible he asserted that natural and other disasters create possibilities for organs to be stolen. 

In 2008, Sonmez boasted at a transplant meeting in Kiev of having performed more than 2,000 illicit transplant operations, involving what he called unrelated “commercial donors” whose wellbeing, he said, was no concern of his.

When questioned by a Moldovan doctor in the audience about the health outcome of the trafficked kidney sellers, Sonmez replied that they were not his patients; they were contract workers. 

Last year a Turkish prosecutor asked for Sonmez to be sentenced to 171 years in prison for illegal transplants carried out in the Medicus clinic.

His lawyer told BIRN that his client continues working in Istanbul where he lives.

EULEX prosecutors last week called for Sonmez to be questioned via video link.

The case against the Kosovar suspects, all of whom deny wrongdoing is ongoing.

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