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RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 23 2004 (IPS) - At least 30 Brazilians have sold their kidneys to an international human organ trafficking ring for transplants performed in South Africa, with Israel providing most of the funding, says a legislative commission in Brazil.
The Pernambuco state legislature’s investigative commission began its enquiry in December and has since helped federal police and justice authorities untangle concrete cases of human organ sales.
Two Israeli citizens, Gedalya Tauber and Eliezer Ramon, and six Brazilians were arrested in Recife, capital of Pernambuco state, in the northeast. They are believed to be active members of the group that recruited people in the area to sell their kidneys, the commission’s chairman, Raimundo Pimentel, told IPS.
The "sellers" were taken to the South African city of Durban, where the transplant surgeries took place at St. Augustine Hospital. The recipients were mostly Israelis, who receive health insurance reimbursements of 70,000 to 80,000 dollars for life-saving medical procedures performed abroad.
The Brazilians were recruited in Recife’s impoverished neighbourhoods. The first ones were paid 10,000 per kidney, but as "supply" increased, the payments fell as low as 3,000 dollars, according to Pimentel, who is himself a surgeon in addition to a deputy in the Pernambuco legislature.
The information obtained by the commission indicates that the trafficking network also sought kidney sellers in Russia and Romania, for renal patients from the United States and Iran, in addition to the Israelis.
To be legal, donors must provide organs voluntarily through formal channels, with recipients prioritised according to urgency and compatibility. The aim is to prevent the creation of a market in which only the rich can afford life-saving organ transplants..
Tauber, a retired Israeli police officer, confessed to the legislative commission that he had begun the search for kidney "donors" in Recife around two years ago, in response to the request of a fellow Israeli who promotes surgical transplants in other countries.
Ivan Bonifacio da Silva, a retired captain of the Pernambuco military police, is one of the Brazilian arrestees. He was Tauber’s first partner in the organ trafficking network. The two met during a course for police in the United States, and they set up a company in the Netherlands, ostensibly for selling weapons and training personnel for private security companies.
Tauber said he did not think he was committing a crime, given that the transaction is considered legal by his country’s government. And he believed it was a win-win situation: saving the lives of the chronically ill while providing income for people who "are very poor, who die of hunger."
The Israeli embassy in Brazil issued a statement Tuesday denying any participation by the Israeli government in the illegal trade of human organs. But it did recognise that its citizens, in emergency cases, can undergo organ transplants in other countries, "in a legal manner, complying with international norms," and with the financial support of their medical insurance.
The Israeli stance is at the very least "anti-ethical", commented Pimentel, adding that trafficking can only take place on a major scale if there is a major source of financing, such as the Israeli health system.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who heads the Organs Watch project at the U.S. University of California, Berkeley, testified to the Pernambuco legislative commission that international trafficking of human organs began some 12 years ago, promoted by Zacki Shapira, former director of a hospital in Tel Aviv.
Shapira performed more than 300 kidney transplants, sometimes accompanying his patients to other countries, such as Turkey. The recipients are very wealthy or have very good health insurance, and the "donors" are very poor people from Eastern Europe, Philippines and other developing countries, said Scheper-Hughes, who specialises in medical anthropology.
In his conversation with IPS, Pimentel said that the U.S. expert had noted that it seemed to be widely held that these transactions "save lives and help the poor."
The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, which covers prevention, enforcement and sanctions in trafficking of humans, includes in its definition of human exploitation the extraction of organs.
The World Health Organisation has also condemned the practice of selling human body parts, prohibiting the advertisement of organs in exchange for money, and established the principle of equality in terms of human organ donations.
Human organ sales are illegal in most of the world. But, writes Scheper-Hughes in an article titled "The New Cannibalism", the sanctions in one country could stimulate trafficking in a neighbouring country. The wealthy patients are willing and able to travel great distances to obtain a transplant.
In November 2000, the World Medical Association declared that payment for organs or tissue for donation and transplant should be banned. Economic incentive compromises the voluntary nature of the decision and the altruistic basis of the donation.
In addition to dismantling the organ trafficking ring in Pernambuco, the legislative investigative commission, police and justice authorities revealed the conditions that are necessary for massive trafficking. The resources provided by the Israeli health system "were a determining factor" that allowed the network to function, says Pimentel.
Nevertheless, in his opinion, the rumours that have caused alarm in many communities in recent years – such as children being kidnapped and then returned days later minus a kidney or other organ – are unfounded. He says organ trafficking is not as widespread as the public seems to believe.
Organ trafficking requires enormous financial and technical resources, because of problems related to compatibility between donor and recipient, and because transplants cannot be performed in just any hospital, he said.
According to the information collected by the Pernambuco legislative commission, some of the transplants performed in Durban cost 200,000 dollars. A patient spending so much money would not agree to the procedure unless it were under excellent hospital conditions and had a high probability of success, concluded the surgeon-lawmaker.
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