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Durban - The multimillion-rand kidney donor scandal implicating four South African surgeons and two Netcare clinic staff is now part of a global EU study on human organ trafficking.
Professor Susanne Lundin, of Lund University in Sweden, said this was a first for research into human organ trafficking – and that South Africa was a focus of the study, titled “Action against human organ trafficking for transplantation”. “I’m here to find out how bad the situation is in South Africa,” she said.
On Friday Lundin sat in on the Durban High Court application brought by medical specialists John Robbs, Ariff Haffejee, Neil Christopher and Mahadev Naidoo, as well as former St Augustine’s Hospital transplant unit staffers Lindy Dickson and Melanie Azor, who are now doctors, to have the charges against them quashed.
The are charged with assisting in 90 illegal transplant operations done at the hospital from June 2001 to November 2003. It is alleged that poverty-stricken Brazilians had sold a kidney each to wealthy Israeli patients for cash.
“Previously, Israel was the hot spot for organ trafficking where buyers and sellers are brought to other countries, such as South Africa,” Lundin said. “We started work a month ago and South Africa is the first country we are focusing on.”
Lund University is one of the partners working with the Erasmus MC University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on the e600 000 (R7 million) study that began this year and is expected to run until 2014. Their objective is to increase knowledge on the trafficking in human beings for the purposes of organ removal.
The World Trade Organisation estimates that 5 to 10 percent of the transplants worldwide are undertaken with criminal purpose. Lundin said their first report was due next year and would be presented before the commission.
She said she met the investigating officer in the kidney donor scandal, Captain Louis Helberg, two years ago at a UN conference. One of the project’s aims was to further develop an informal network of transplant doctors, prosecutors and police officers, NGOs and international organisations, she said.
At the end of the project, a set of indicators to identify and measure the crime, and practical recommendations to improve current non-legislative action, would be prepared and these recommendations would include guidelines for medical staff, Lundin said.
In court on Friday, the doctors’ legal counsel sought a permanent stay of prosecution.
Their main arguments were the unreasonable delay in prosecution, unfair discrimination, and that they had suffered personal and trial prejudice.
Senior advocate, Jean Marais, acting for the four surgeons, had argued before Acting Judge Antonie Troskie that according to the constitution every person had a right to a fair trial, including the right to a public trial after being charged. However, he felt there was overwhelming argument that this trial would not be a fair one. He said a surgeon’s time had a profound value and should not become a “play thing” of the State on society.
Referring to the unreasonable delays, he said the surgeons were arrested in 2005, and the trial date was set in 2006. But a month later the charges were withdrawn and in 2010 they were again summonsed. Marais argued that the surgeons were robbed of several years of their lives and were “emotionally scarred” over this period.
“There’s no urgency on the State’s part,” he said. “The charges aren’t serious, and if convicted they would probably face a fine of R150 000.”
Senior advocate, Jeff Hewitt, representing Dickson and Azor, said his clients’ alleged involvement was at a much lower level compared to the others. He argued that Dickson was still being prosecuted, because the State did not want to shift the blame on to Azor.
“She’s offended at this because [Azor] has done nothing wrong so it would be impossible to blame her,” he said.
Dickson, he argued, was employed as a bookkeeper and therefore had no jurisdiction in the nursing of patients. He said Azor was brought in as Dickson needed help with administration. “The donors and recipients were kept in a separate building to where they were based and their contact with the doctors involved in the transplants was limited.”
State advocate, Robin Palmer, had argued that the six accused were attempting a “back-door” judicial review of the decision to prosecute them. He also said in deciding to prosecute this matter, all relevant criteria were taken into account, including the need for general deterrence.
Internationally no other comprehensive prosecution of this type had been instituted, Palmer said. “In addition, the conviction of the corporate owner, a private hospital, Netcare KwaZulu-Natal trading as St Augustine’s Hospital, is a world first,” he argued.
“Nobody is above the law; it is a crucial factor that no organ trafficking of any kind could succeed if there were not surgeons willing to participate in such schemes,” Palmer said.
“With [Dickson and Azor], the State alleges they were instrumental in processing the illegal suppliers of kidneys in circumstances where they must have known this to be illegal.”
Palmer felt the doctors had exaggerated the length of the delays. “The delays in bringing this matter to trial were justified given the nature and complexity of the charges and the circumstances of the investigations,” he said.
Judgment in the application has been reserved. - Daily News