Surgeons win epic court battle

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IOL Bus NS KIDNEY Feb23 2013 INLSA From left, Dr Neil Christopher, Professor Ariff Haffejee, Dr Mahadev Naidoo, and Professor John Robbs, far right, with their attorney Altus Janse van Rensburg, standing behind them, couldnt hide their joy after they were finally cleared yesterday of all charges in the Netcare Kwazulu-Natal international cash-for-kidneys scandal. Picture: Sbusiso Ndlovu.

Four top Durban surgeons implicated in the international cash-for-kidneys scandal emerged jubilant from the Commercial Crimes Court yesterday after all the charges against them were finally officially withdrawn by the state.

However, they alleged in an exclusive statement to The Independent on Saturday that the truth had not yet emerged regarding the illegal international kidney transplants, during the almost 10-year-long prosecution, and said they were “deeply concerned” about the way in which the legal process had been followed.

Professor John Robbs, Dr Mahadev Naidoo, Professor Ariff Haffejee and Dr Neil Christopher, who appeared briefly in court at John Ross House, Durban, yesterday, said they were “delighted that the charges against us have been finally and officially withdrawn.”

This follows their successful application in the Durban High Court for a permanent stay of prosecution in November.

The surgeons, and former St Augustine’s Hospital transplant unit staff members Lindy Dickson and Melanie Azor, who are now doctors, were charged with assisting in 90 illegal kidney transplant operations in contravention of the Human Tissues Act between 2001 and 2003, when poor Brazilians allegedly sold their kidneys to wealthy Israeli patients in exchange for cash.

Netcare KwaZulu-Natal pleaded guilty and paid a fine of R4 million and agreed to a R3.8m confiscation order in November 2010.

Magistrate Melvin Govender yesterday ordered that all charges against Robbs, Naidoo, Haffajee and Christopher be withdrawn.

However, he stood down the matter regarding Dickson and Azor, who were unavailable to attend court yesterday.

The surgeons, after sitting serious-faced in the dock for the last time, were in good spirits while addressing the media outside court.

However, they expressed indignation at the way the case had been handled by the criminal justice system.

Robbs said that over the length of the investigation he had welcomed eight grandchildren into his family and Haffejee added that he had become grandfather three times over the period.

“It is astounding that without one shred of credible evidence against us that this matter could have dragged on for approximately ten years. The damage to our health, reputations, professional careers, relationships with colleagues and professional bodies is immeasurable,” the doctors said.

“We have maintained our innocence from the very beginning and refused to accept any deals or plea bargains that were offered.”

Robbs said Netcare’s transplant division had initially denied the allegations.

“Their initial response was denial, then to blame “errant” employees, then to blame the Durban surgeons and finally, to our astonishment, to admit guilt and pay a total fine of close to R8m,” the doctors said.

The doctors said it was “disturbing” and “remained a mystery” as to why surgeons and professionals in two of Netcare’s Cape Town and Johannesburg hospitals, as well as those in the public Groote Schuur and Charlotte Maxeke hospitals, had not been investigated for their alleged involvement in the national, cross-border programme.

“It only came to Durban when the patient load exceeded their capacity, yet four Durban surgeons were held responsible,” the doctors said.

“Our transplant team continued to function as a team, which grew stronger and closer despite attempts to divide us in the hope that a ‘breakthrough’ in the investigation would occur.

“Unfortunately, there cannot be closure until the truth emerges. To this end, we are prepared to make a personal investment to achieve this.”

However, the four declined to comment on whether this meant they would attempt to launch a civil case for damages.

Kerishnie Naiker, director of communications at Netcare, said the company had “repeatedly urged the authorities to bring this matter to a conclusion.”

“We understand there is a possibility of further investigations by medical professional bodies such as the Health Professions Council of South Africa and under the circumstances, it would be inappropriate for us to comment on the allegations made by doctors at this stage,” she said.

Hawks spokesman Paul Ramaloko said the police respected the court’s decision.

“However, if new evidence emerges that could assist us to reinstate charges we will definitely do so. We can’t say for now if we are restarting the investigation,” he said.

Cape Town Professor Dell Kahn, the former president of the Southern African Transplant Society who blew the whistle on the scandal, said: “It must be an enormous relief for the people concerned and one would be happy that they can now carry on with their lives.” - The Independent on Saturday

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