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Turkish Doctor Arrested in Organ Trafficking Ring

Jan 12, 2011 – 12:34 PM
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Theunis Bates

Theunis Bates Contributor

A surgeon dubbed "Dr. Frankenstein" by the Turkish media has been arrested on suspicion of heading a Kosovo-based organ-smuggling gang that illegally snatched kidneys and sold them to wealthy customers around the world.

Police seized Yusuf Sonmez, 53, on Tuesday evening at his luxury villa in Istanbul, according to Agence France-Presse, on an Interpol arrest warrant filed by a European Union prosecutor in Kosovo. A court freed Sonmez today, pending a trial.

He vehemently denies the charges.

'Turkish Frankenstein' Arrested Over Organ Trafficking Allegations
AFP / Getty Images
Turkish police escort Yusuf Sonmez to a local court in Istanbul on Wednesday. He is accused of heading an organ-smuggling gang, based in Kosovo, that sold illegally removed kidneys on the black market.
Sonmez is among nine people who have been indicted in connection with illegal organ removals allegedly carried out at the Medicus Clinic in Kosovo's capital, Pristina. According to European Union prosecutor Jonathan Ratel, poor Russians, Moldovans and Turks were lured to the clinic with the "false promises of payments" for their kidneys. (The EU handles cases that are too sensitive for the local judiciary, such as allegations of war crimes.)

The donors received nothing, but their organs were sold for up to $200,000 to patients in Canada, Germany and Israel. Ratel alleges that Sonmez was a "key surgical participant" in dozens of operations performed at the clinic, according to The Associated Press.

The black market trade was revealed in 2008 when a Turkish man, Yilmaz Altun, fainted at Pristina's airport and told U.N. police he had just had his kidney removed. Officers raided Medicus and found an Israeli transplant tourist who had just received the Turk's kidney. Seven Kosovans have so far been charged in connection with the organ scam, including Ilir Rrecaj -- the former permanent secretary at the ministry of health -- and Lutfi Dervishi, a professor at Pristina University Hospital.

An EU judge based in Pristina now has two weeks to decide whether to bring the case to trial. But even if the trial goes ahead, it's unlikely that Sonmez will appear before a Kosovan court. Turkey does not extradite its citizens abroad. Instead, it supplies other countries with the accused citizen's testimony. Should Sonmez be found guilty, he would serve his sentence in a Turkish prison.

Sonmez has denied any wrongdoing in Kosovo. "I am being shown as the biggest criminal and even the leader of a criminal gang," he wrote in a statement posted on his website, according to The Guardian. "If I am the gang leader, where are my men?"

Any trial could have severe ramifications for Kosovo's government. A Council of Europe report last month accused the newly independent country's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, of heading a criminal gang that removed organs from executed Serb prisoners during and after the 1998-99 Kosovo war.

Dick Marty, the Swiss senator and former prosecutor who compiled the report, wrote that the alleged mistreatment of Serb captives a decade ago was "closely related to the contemporary case of the Medicus clinic." He cited "Kosovan Albanian and international figures" who were key "co-conspirators" in both crimes.

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Marty omitted the suspects' names from the report "out of respect" to Kosovo's judicial process. However, last month The Guardian reported sources within the Kosovan government saying that two of the unnamed individuals were Sonmez and former Kosovo Liberation Army medical commander Shaip Muja, who now advises Prime Minister Thaci on health policy.

Authorities have not accused of Muja of any wrongdoing at Medicus, and he has denied being involved in illegal organ removal during the Kosovo war.

Thaci has dismissed Marty's allegations against him as "groundless" and condemned the illegal trade in human organs as "inhuman."
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