An Israeli man has finally been brought to justice for his part in a convoluted organ trafficking scheme prosecutors have deemed “a cruel harvest of the poor.”
The investigation began in 2008 when a 23-year-old Turkish man collapsed onto the floor of an airport in the Kosovoan capital of Pristina. While attempting to provide aid to the man, authorities discovered a fresh scar trailing down his abdomen, indicative that he had recently undergone a procedure to remove his left kidney.
After being pressed by police, the 23-year-old revealed that he had recently sold a kidney to an Israeli man through a clinic for the sum of $18,000. Undergoing the transplant procedure at a clinic known as Medicus located on the city’s outskirts, investigators suspected that the man may have been caught up in what they believed was an organ trafficking ring.
It would be through this investigation that authorities would learn that the ring would find donors from not only Turkey but also poor regions of Eastern and Western Europe, as well as Central Asia. Promising willing donors between $10,000 and $18,000 in exchange for their kidneys, Medicus would then pair these donors with eager recipients, primarily Israelis, charging upwards of $140,000 to perform the procedure. Once the transplant was complete, Medicus would pay their donors substantially less than what they were initially promised, if they were ever paid at all.
This operation went on for several months and is believed to have been responsible for nearly two dozen illegal transplants. Additionally, it was suspected to be just one of a network of clinics connected to the ring. The investigation indicated that not only was the same ring operating the Medicus clinic in Kosovo but may have been connected to other clinics in Azerbaijan and South Africa. In an interview with the Irish Times, Jonathan Ratel, who acted as prosecutor for the EU’s rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, said, “The sole and driving motive for this exploitation of the poor and indigent was the opportunity for obscene profit and human greed.”
In 2013, five Kosovoan doctors were sentenced to serve up to eight years in prison for their role within the trafficking ring. Among them was Turkish urologist Lutfi Dervishi, who opened the Medicus clinic in 2008. Dervishi was apprehended and convicted of organ trafficking and organized crime in 2013. Dervishi, as well as his son, pleaded guilty to their charges. Dervishi was sentenced to serve eight years behind bars, while his son was ordered seven. Both father and son fled, with Dervishi being re-arrested in 2016. Dervishi’s original sentence was overturned by Kosovo’s Supreme Court last year citing “procedural irregularities” and is currently awaiting a retrial, while Dervishi’s son Arban remains hiding in exile.
Yusuf Sonmez, nicknamed “Dr. Frankenstein” by Turkish press, was determined to have been the surgeon who oversaw operations at the clinic. Sonmez has been wanted by Interpol since 2010 for his ghoulish role in the kidney transplants and it is believed that he acted as the lead surgeon in most of, if not every operation, that was performed at Medicus, as well as other illegal organ transplant clinics.
Another key player in the ring who was able to stay two steps ahead of the law was 70-year-old travel agent and Israeli national, Moshe Harel, who is accused of being the so-called “fixer” in the operation. Harel was responsible for finding and negotiating prices with potential donors. Since 2010 he has been wanted by both Interpol and Russian authorities on charges including human trafficking and intentional infliction of grave injuries.
Harel was arrested back in 2008 when the investigation into Medicus and their ties to the black market organ trade began. He was released and immediately fled to avoid prosecution. Harel’s luck would run out in January of 2018 when it was discovered that he had been hiding in Cyprus. According to reports, Harel is currently awaiting extradition to Kosovo.
Kosovo has been a hotbed for illegal organ trafficking since the Kosovo War. In 1999, investigative journalist Michael Montgomery uncovered information that indicated Serbs, Romas, and some Kosovoan Albanians had been either killed or simply vanished off the streets at the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
In response to the evidence presented by Montgomery suggesting these individuals had been the victims of the gruesome industry of black market organ sales, a special internationally backed court has been established to prosecute war criminals who participated in these activities as well as individuals behind illegitimate clinics like Medicus.