A wealthy Nigerian politician has been found guilty of an organ-harvesting plot involving a UK hospital in a legal first of its kind.
Senator Ike Ekweremadu, 60, his wife Beatrice, 56, and medical “middleman” Dr Obinna Obeta, 50, were found guilty at the Old Bailey of conspiring to arrange the travel of a young man with a view to exploiting him for his body part.
The Ekweremadus’ 25-year-old daughter, Sonia, who has a serious kidney condition, wept in court as she was cleared by the jury, which deliberated for nearly 14 hours.
It is the first time defendants have been convicted under the Modern Slavery Act of an organ harvesting conspiracy.
While it is lawful to donate a kidney, it becomes criminal if there is a reward of money or other material advantage.
The prosecution claimed the donor was offered up to £7,000 and the promise of a better life in the UK.
It was alleged the defendants tried to convince medics at the Royal Free by pretending he was Ms Ekweremadu’s cousin when, in fact, they were not related.
When their transplant bid failed, Ms Ekweremadu’s family, who have an address in Willesden Green, north-west London, switched to Turkey and set about finding more potential donors, it was alleged.
An investigation was launched after the young man ran away from London and slept rough for days before walking into a police station more than 20 miles away in Staines in Surrey, crying and in distress.
Jurors heard that Sonia Ekweremadu was one of four siblings who had been privately educated in the UK.
She was studying for a masters degree at Newcastle University when she became ill in December 2019.
Diwe, who remains in Nigeria, turned to former classmate Dr Obeta, of Southwark, south London, who had recently had a private kidney transplant at the Royal Free with a Nigerian donor.
In a text, Diwe told his brother: “I had an extensive discussion last night with my classmate who had his transplant last month. I will brief you.”
Dr Obeta then engaged with Dr Chris Agbo, of Vintage Health Group, a medical tourism company, as well as an agent to arrange a visa for the donor, the court heard.
The donor, who knew the man who donated his kidney to Dr Obeta, was recruited from a Lagos street market where he made a few pounds a day selling phone accessories from a wheelbarrow.
He underwent tests in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, before arrangements were made to fly him to the UK last year, the court was told.
In his UK Home Office visa application, the donor was described as Sonia Ekweremadu’s cousin and the paperwork was supported by a letter from Ike, jurors heard.
The court was shown messages in which Ike Ekweremadu discussed with his brother the costs, including the donor fee of millions of naira (Nigerian currency), it was alleged.
One forwarded message from Diwe complaining of a “huge invoice” from “Dr Chris”, saying: “It looks like they’re all out to exploit people’s unfortunate situation.”
As the travel plans went ahead, Sonia was encouraged to establish a relationship with the donor through text messages, jurors were told.
Jurors were shown a picture of her smiling with him during a meal at a restaurant in London.
Royal Free consultant Dr Peter Dupont concluded that the donor was not an appropriate candidate after learning he had no counselling or advice about the risks of surgery and he lacked funds for the lifelong care he would need.
Undeterred, a “corrupt interpreter” was enlisted for £1,500 to help at the donor’s second hospital meeting with a surgeon, the court was told.
Both medics agreed on their assessment and in March last year Dr Dupont gave his decision but no reasons, citing patient confidentiality.
Sonia Ekweremadu’s family immediately resumed their donor search, the court was told.
Relaying his fears, he told police: “The doctor said I was too young but the man said if you do not do it here he would carry me back to Nigeria and do it there.
“I was sleeping three days outside around, looking for someone to help me, save my life.”
In their trial, the defendants claimed they believed the donor was acting “altruistically”.
Ike Ekweremadu, who owns about 10 properties in Nigeria and Dubai, told jurors he had trusted the medical experts but suspected he was being “scammed”.
On how he treated the donor, prosecutor Hugh Davies KC asked: “From beginning to end it demonstrates all he was to you was a body part for sale? Because he was going to get work and he would be paid the 3.5 million naira, you felt you owed him nothing?”
The politician replied: “Never. It was a big scam.”
They were asked why they did not look for a member of their own family to “step up” and donate a kidney to their daughter.
Mr Davies asserted that for them it was “far better to buy one and let the medical risk go to someone you don’t know”.
Sonia Ekweremadu, who remains reliant on weekly dialysis, declined to give evidence but it was said on her behalf that she knew nothing of a reward offered to donors.
Dr Obeta’s lawyer, Sally Howes KC, told jurors: “He was motivated by his desire to help a fellow citizen because no-one would understand the misery and pain like someone who had been through it themselves.”
Sonia Ekweremadu tearfully hugged her father as he was sent down from the dock.
Chief Crown Prosecutor Joanne Jakymec said: “This was a horrific plot to exploit a vulnerable victim by trafficking him to the UK for the purpose of transplanting his kidney.
“The convicted defendants showed utter disregard for the victim’s welfare, health and wellbeing and used their considerable influence to a high degree of control throughout, with the victim having limited understanding of what was really going on here.”
Detective Inspector Esther Richardson, from the Metropolitan Police’s Modern Slavery and Exploitation Command, said: “This is a landmark conviction and we commend the victim for his bravery in speaking against these offenders.
“We could not have done this without the help of our colleagues in the CPS, Human Tissue Authority and other partners who have worked tirelessly to achieve this result.
“We do understand the challenges around modern slavery cases as no two investigations are the same. Specialist officers from the Met’s Modern Slavery and Exploitation team understand this and we will ensure victims are supported, signposted and safeguarded with the help of partners.”