Medicus clinic linked in Council of Europe report to alleged Kosovo Liberation Army organ harvesting atrocities
Paul Lewis in Pristina
December 2010 15.17 GMT
The story of how Kosovo hosted an illegal market in human organs began to unfold today in a district court in the capital, Pristina. As armed special forces stood outside, the court heard how desperate Russians, Moldovans, Kazakhs and Turks were lured into the capital “with the false promise of payments” for their kidneys.
EU prosecutor Jonathan Ratel told the court the organs had been illegally removed from victims and transplanted into wealthy recipients in the clinic, known as Medicus. Those who paid up to €90,000 (£76,400) for the black-market kidneys included patients from Canada, Germany, Poland and Israel, Ratel said.
Huddled in the centre of the room, in overcoats, were seven defendants alleged to have played some role in the racket. Among them were some of Kosovo’s most respected physicians, including a former permanent secretary of health who is accused of abusing office to grant Medicus a false licence, and Dr Lutfi Dervishi, a urologist at the university hospital alleged to have set up the operation.
Two of their co-accused are fugitives wanted by Interpol: Moshe Harel, an Israeli said to have matched donors with recipients, and Yusuf Sonmez, perhaps the world’s most renowned organ trafficker.
The story would be shocking enough if it ended there. But what the court did not hear is that the Medicus clinic has been linked in a Council of Europe report to a wider network of Albanian organised criminals. They are said to have had close links to senior officials in Kosovo’s government, including the prime minister, Hashim Thaçi. Their supposed links to the underground organ market allegedly go back more than a decade when, in its most gruesome incarnation, the operation is said to have involved removing kidneys from murder victims. The allegations are contained in an official report into Kosovo’s organ trade produced by the human rights rapporteur Dick Marty and obtained by the Guardian.
The Swiss senator conducted a two-year inquiry into organised crime in Kosovo after the Council of Europe mandated him to investigate claims of organ harvesting bythe Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) after the war with Serbia ended in 1999.
The claims initially surfaced two years ago, when the former chief war crimes prosecutor at The Hague, Carla Del Ponte, said she had been prevented from properly investigating alleged atrocities committed by the KLA. Marty’s report suggests the KLA held Serbs and other captives in secret detention centres in Albania for almost a year after the war ended. A small number of prisoners, the report suggests, were transferred to a makeshift clinic just north of the capital Tirana, where they were shot in the head before their kidneys were removed.
The Albanian connection
The criminal trail is said to begin across the southern border, in the lawless mountains of northern Albania.
Serbia has long complained of atrocities committed by the KLA after July 1999, when Nato-led air strikes forced Slobodan Milosevic’s troops to retreat from the province. Marty finds evidence for those concerns, stating that Kosovo’s guerrilla army formed “a formidable power base in the organised criminal enterprises” in Kosovo and Albania. A group known as Drenica, led by Thaçi, became the KLA’s dominant faction and senior KLA figures from the group hold senior positions in Kosovo’s government today.
In 1999, Thaçi was identified as the most dangerous of the KLA’s “criminal bosses” by intelligence reports, according to Marty. Thaçi’s KLA group is also said to be the main organisation responsible for smuggling prisoners across the porous border. They were held in a network of detention facilities converted from warehouses, farm buildings and a disused factory. The report, , which states that it is not a criminal investigation and is unable to pronounce judgments of guilt or innocence, focuses on a key figure said to have played a central role in the organ operation. A KLA medical commander based in Albania, Shaip Muja remains a close confidante of Thaçi’s, and is currently a political adviser in the office of the prime minister, with responsibility for health. “We have uncovered numerous convergent indications of Muja’s central role [in] international networks, comprising human traffickers, brokers of illicit surgical procedures, and other perpetrators of organised crime,” the report states.
Marty estimates that 40 captives survived being held prisoner in Albania, and are alive today. Others are thought to have been killed, including “scores” who he says were taken across the border after the war ended.
Among the makeshift prisons where captives were held, Marty identifies the famed Yellow House, near the town of Burrel. When the Guardian visited the property two years ago, the owners – the Katuci family – became hostile and denied wrongdoing. While the report concludes the Katuci family home was not the site of organ harvesting, it states that captive Serbs were taken there after the Katucis moved out and the KLA took over the property. The Yellow House and other ad hoc jails function as way stations in which KLA operatives selected candidates for organ removal, Marty says.
After medical checks and blood tests, he says a “handful” were moved to a farmhouse in Fushë-Krujë, a town north of the Albanian capital, Tirana. According to the report, some of these prisoners became aware of the fate that awaited them, and are said to have pleaded not to be “chopped into pieces”. The report adds: “The testimonies on which we based our findings spoke credibly and consistently of a methodology by which all of the captives were killed, usually by a gunshot to the head, before being operated on to remove one or more of their organs.”
The Guardian has established that organs are believed to have been shipped to Istanbul, in a criminal racket operated by Yusuf Sonmez, the same Turkish doctor wanted by Interpol for his alleged involvement in the Medicus clinic.
An incident at Pristina airport finally led police down a dirt track to Medicus, a nondescript building around six miles away.
When a 23-year-old Turkish man, Yilman Altun, fainted in front of customs officials in November 2008 while he waited for his flight to Istanbul officials lifted his shirt and discovered a fresh scar on his abdomen. The next day, Kosovo police raided Medicus and discovered a 74-year-old Israeli, Bezalel Shafran, who, according to the indictment read out in court today, revealed he had paid €90,000 for a stolen kidney. Both “donor” and recipient identified Sonmez as having been involved in the surgical procedure. That discovery triggered the investigation that led to the start of legal proceedings in Pristina today . After the confirmation hearing, Judge Hugo Pardal will consider whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. Ratel told the court police had uncovered detailed evidence of organ transplants at the clinic, including records of wire transfers for payments and blood tests taken before the procedures. He estimated there were 20-30 victims in the first eight months of 2008 alone, all tricked into believing they would be paid for their organs by middle men in Istanbul.
All defendants in the Medicus case pleaded not guilty.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, it will be the alleged link between Medicus and KLA organ harvesting that will receive most attention when Marty’s report is presented for adoption by an 83-member committee of the Council of Europe in Paris on Thursday . The connection is made explicit in Marty’s findings, which refer to “credible, convergent indications” that the removal of organs from prisoners in Albania a decade ago is “closely related to the contemporary case of the Medicus clinic”. In making the link, Marty refers to prominent “Kosovan Albanian and international figures” who figure as “co-conspirators” in both organ rackets. Their names have been omitted from the report “out of respect” to the Kosovo judicial process.
However, senior Kosovo government sources have told the Guardian those figures are almost certainly Shaip Muja and Yusuf Sonmez. They are the two names mentioned independently by a Washington-based intelligence source who has monitored criminal networks involving KLA figures since 1999. The source described the pair as “the common thread” tying Medicus to KLA activities in 1999 and 2000.
“It is Muja who got into business with Yusuf Sonmez on his trips to Turkey around the time of the Kosovo war, which resulted in kidneys being secreted out of Albania to Istanbul,” the source said. “It’s no coincidence that he also played a role in the creation of Medicus, less than a decade later.”
The source added: “In many respects the two are similar operations. In both cases, you’ve got illegal outfits linking senior players among the Kosovar Albanians trading in the organs of innocent victims, playing into an international racket to profit from the surgeries of Sonmez.”