Five men have been convicted in Kosovo of involvement in an organ-trafficking ring that performed at least 23 illegal kidney transplants at a clinic on the outskirts of the capital, which is under the watch of UN police and Nato peacekeepers.
The trial of the men, all citizens of Kosovo, has taken on added significance in the region because it echoes a high-profile investigation into alleged organ harvesting by guerrilla fighters during the 1998-99 war.
Would-be donors from Turkey and poor parts of the former Soviet Union were lured to the Medicus clinic in Pristina on a promise of €10,000-12,000. Recipients, mainly Israelis, paid between €80,000 and 100,000 for the organs. Some donors never received any money.
“They were alone, did not speak the local language, were uncertain of what they were doing and had no one to protect their interests,” Dean Pineles, part of an international panel of judges, told the court.
The scandal came to light in late 2008 when a Turkish man was stopped by police at Pristina airport. He was in pain after having his kidney removed. The case grew in notoriety when allegations surfaced that the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which waged an insurgency against Serbian forces in the late 1990s, had extracted and sold organs from captives, some of them Serbs, at sites in neighbouring Albania.
Pineles criticised Marty and the Council of Europe for refusing a prosecution request for him to testify, saying they had “quickly retreated behind the cloak of immunity”. He said the judges were perplexed by the refusal.
The director of the Medicus clinic, urologist Lutfi Dervishi, was jailed for eight years for organised crime and trafficking in persons. His son, Arban, was jailed for seven years and three months.
Anaesthetist Sokol Hajdini was sentenced to three years in prison and two other defendants received one-year suspended sentences. Two more were acquitted. They had all denied any wrongdoing. Prosecutors said they would appeal.
Warrants have been issued for two more suspects: Turkish surgeon Yusuf Ercin Sonmez and alleged ringleader Moshe Harel, an Israeli citizen.
A taskforce, appointed by the EU and led by the US prosecutor Clint Williamson, is investigating Marty’s allegations against the KLA and is expected to issue a report in 2014.
Nato intervened in the war in 1999, launching 11 weeks of air strikes to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces trying to crush the KLA insurgency.
Kosovo, then a Serbian province, became a ward of the UN, patrolled by Nato, and declared independence in February 2008.
Serbia, which does not recognise the 2008 secession, has seized on the allegations as proof that the KLA, with which Nato co-operated during its bombing campaign, also committed war crimes.
The allegations have infuriated Kosovo’s political elite and government, which contains many senior former guerrillas including the prime minister, Hashim Thaçi, who has denied the allegations.