Interview 07 May 13

Prosecutors Renew Hunt for Kosovo Organ Traffickers

As the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo stages a new organ-trafficking investigation, prosecutor Jonathan Ratel discusses the recent Medicus clinic convictions and the suspects who remain at large.

Kreshnik Gashi

BIRN: Was the investigation of the Medicus clinic near Pristina, where the illegal kidney transplants took place, taken seriously from its outset in 2008?

Jonathan Ratel: “I think the initial investigation was very difficult because of the way it began. It began very quickly and with some urgency at Pristina International Airport with the medical distress of a young Turkish boy, Yilmaz Altun, who expressed that he needed assistance. He was examined by a doctor at the airport and the police immediately realised that something was very wrong; they arrived at the Medicus clinic and seized the clinic. They found the recipient of that illegal transplant there.”

In 2008, it was implied that there was only one transplant operation at Medicus. How did you find out that there were more than 24 transplants?

“When the search was conducted at the Medicus clinic and I have to say that that search was conducted because of urgency but it was not conducted with a valid search warrant by the court. That was a real problem. The urgency of the situation could have permitted the police to search without a warrant; however, that was not requested and a prosecutor’s order was not requested and was not even given. So this search went ahead without any prior judicial authorisation whatsoever and that was a key issue in the case. Why was it important? It was extremely important because there were documents, medical records, anesthesiology logs and surgical records that we desperately needed for the case in order to ground these convictions.”

In 2008, Kosovo police arrested Moshe Harel, one of the key suspects in this case. Why was he released before he could be tried?

“I do not know but I could say that Moshe Harel, the Israeli national, wanted now by Interpol, was released by an UNMIK judge after 30 days’ custody. He was told to return to Kosovo and face his charges, but he never has.”

Could you explain the role of Moshe Harel in this case?

“Moshe Harel is a recruiter involved in the procurement, purchases, sale and transplantation of human organs involved in the illegal international trade in body parts. He is a key person in arranging logistics, money, wire transfers, travel and meetings between patients and donor victims. At that time, he was a resident in Israel and transited to Kosovo through Istanbul.

“Istanbul was a staging point for both the donor victims and the recipients. They would enter often on Turkish Airlines flights together and then immediately go to the Medicus clinic for surgery, along with Moshe Harel. He was a key participant and a key member of the organised criminal group.”

What was the role of Turkish doctor Yusuf Sonmez in the Medicus transplants?

“At that time he was the key surgeon and instrumental in all organ transplants that took place. He is a fugitive from justice and wanted by Interpol along with Moshe Harel. He is a notorious organ trafficker from Turkey that we have been engaged in seeking for a long period of time. We do not know where he is at the present moment, but there is a theory that he might be in South Africa. We are making all efforts to locate him; he is wanted on a red notice by Interpol, and he is under indictment in Turkey for offences arising from the Medicus clinic here.”

In 2008, Sonmez managed to get a license from Kosovo’s health ministry to work at the Medicus clinic. Was this acceptable?

“Well, I do not think that the authorities here may have known his complete history, that he had run into difficulty with the criminal law in Turkey. Maybe they were aware, I do not know. But what I do know is that he was licensed as a general surgeon, not for organ transplants because this is prohibited under the Kosovo Health Act.”

It’s believed that Sonmez was in Kosovo in 2008 but left just before Medicus was raided. Was he tipped off by someone?

“What we do know is that from the time that Yilmaz Altun at the airport expressed his concern that he was in medical distress and was seen by a doctor at the airport and the time that it took to police to arrive to Medicus was approximately just short of one hour. We do not know what information in that hour may have been given to the clinic; however, we are concerned, as was the defence, that a number of documents were missing from the clinic: key surgical protocol books and records were missing. In addition, there were other documents that would have assisted the prosecution and perhaps the defence, but those documents have been removed from the clinic.

“We have no record of [Sonmez] exiting this country. There is a theory that he may have used a rented car and exited by land through a small road in one of the neighbouring countries. We are just not sure.”

Have you asked Turkey for the extradition of Sonmez to Kosovo?

“There was very limited opportunity for extradition both for Sonmez and Moshe Harel for obvious reasons that their law in Turkey and Israel prohibits extradition of their own citizens under the constitution. What was done was a full cooperation with Turkey and Israel based upon reciprocity requests for legal assistance. We met with the police and prosecutors of both Israel and Turkey and we had excellent cooperation with both countries. That has resulted in indictments going forth in both Turkey and Israel against several persons.”

You have said that there will be further prosecutions in the Medicus case.

“I can confirm that the prosecutor has filed a further investigation in this matter against each suspect in Kosovo for the activities of the Medicus clinic. Those involve allegations of organised crime, trafficking in persons, abuse of office and other related offences. But that is a new investigation against further suspects.”

There have been rumours that some Kosovo politicians could be under suspicion. Can you confirm that?

“I would not answer that, sorry. I may not identify any suspects.”

The initial arrests were criticised by Kosovo’s former justice minister, Hajredin Kuqi. Was this a form of pressure aimed at stopping the investigations in 2008?

“I am not aware of those statements because I was not here in Kosovo in 2008. I can advise that the past minister of justice was a witness in this matter and he gave evidence, so were other senior officials. That was part of the evidence. I can say that these matters and others will be looked at and there is a further investigation by the prosecutor with regard to activities of the Medicus clinic.”

Were there any political influences on this case or during the trial?

“This prosecutor has not been influenced by politics at all; that has not happened. I cannot say about other investigators or other individuals, but I can say that I am not affected by any form of political pressure or concern.”

Will you appeal against the April 29 verdict that convicted five men including the owner of Medicus of organised crime and people-trafficking?

“Yes, I will. I think you should understand that we are satisfied with the majority of the verdict, we find that the sentences and convictions are entirely appropriate. We will file an appeal on technical issues regarding the limitations and on other technical matters. But I have to say that we welcome these verdicts, we think that this is justice for the victims, for the donor victims that were recruited and transported here to the Medicus clinic and exploited for the removal of their organs.”

The verdict ordered compensation to be paid to the victims, but the Medicus clinic has been shut since 2008. How will the money be found?

“Let’s be clear that the building exists, the equipment and the medical setting exists. We have filed an application for confiscation of that building, land, medical equipment and all its assets inside because the building was in total closure under the court through the entire investigation.”

Do you know anything about the health of those people whose kidneys were removed at the Medicus clinic?

“The health and security of the victims is of a great interest to us. The victims suffered significant physical impairment. Many of them, their lives, have been altered forever both physically and psychologically. They have suffered immense pain, in some cases disfigurement, and their right to employment is severely limited. Some of them will live with this for the rest of their lives.  Accordingly, the court took the view and they rightly saw that there should be compensation. But, so too, the desperate recipients of these organs, who were only concerned with their own condition and ignored where these organs were coming from, are also in a sense victims too. Several of those persons have died, including the witnesses that we heard from in the court.”

Have you worked with cases of human trafficking before?

“Yes, I have worked with human trafficking in Sarajevo in the state court, in Bosnia.”

So you are familiar with this phenomenon?

“The techniques used by the recruiters, the persons whose enticed poor persons to agree to sell their organs and for removal of the organs at the Medicus clinic, were much the same. There were false promises of payment, coercion, fraud, and other devices used against them, including a tremendous pressure. These are seen in other trafficking instances, including trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual slavery or prostitution – they use the exact same techniques.”

The Medicus clinic was also mentioned in a Council of Europe report, written by human rights rapporteur Dick Marty, which alleged that elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army traded the organs of prisoners during the 1999 conflict. However, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe did not permit Marty to testify at the Medicus trial.

“The court and the prosecutor agree that this is unfortunate, because Dick Marty’s report claims that he had direct causal evidence between the Medicus clinic and the allegations of the human organ trafficking during the [Kosovo] conflict, and we would be very interested to hear from him.”

As a prosecutor, do you think that there is any relationship between the Medicus case and the KLA allegations?

“Unfortunately, as a prosecutor, I do not act on suspicions. I act on evidence and I can tell you that at the end of some four and a half years of investigation and prosecution, I found no direct evidence [of a link] between the two.”

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