In Pakistan, Illegal Kidney Trade Flourishes As Victims Await Justice : Parallels Sophisticated criminals prey on the poor, luring them with false promises of lucrative jobs before depriving them of their organs. The "kidney mafias" benefit from powerful political connections.

In Pakistan, Illegal Kidney Trade Flourishes As Victims Await Justice

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Many of us have checked a little box on our driver's license applications. It says we agree to donate organs if we're in a crash. Some people volunteer to give up a kidney while they're still alive. The key there is they volunteer. In Pakistan, authorities say some poor people have been tricked into donating organs against their will while they are still alive. NPR's Philip Reeves has a story of illegal organ harvesting.

Hi, Phil.


INSKEEP: How has this even come to light?

REEVES: Steve, not long ago, the police here got a tipoff saying that some people were imprisoned inside an apartment block. So the cops raided the place in the middle of the night. And they found 24 people, including four women, locked up on the top floor. And some of them had been imprisoned there for months. And all of them were waiting to be taken to a nearby clinic to have a kidney removed.

INSKEEP: Imprisoned, like hostages? Who were they?

REEVES: Very, very poor and illiterate people who'd been lured there from the countryside by a criminal gang. Now, over the years, there have been many, many cases in Pakistan of impoverished people selling a kidney to try and clear debts, for example. But this is a little different. The police are convinced that most of the people in that apartment were tricked and had no intention of selling an organ when they arrived there.

INSKEEP: How were they tricked into that imprisonment, that apartment?

REEVES: Well, these gangs use extreme deception backed up by threats. And they have powerful connections and backed up, also, by money. Let's take, for example, the case of Saddi Ahmed, one of those imprisoned. I spent a long time talking with him. He's a casual laborer, aged 39. He has got four kids. And he makes less than 30 bucks a week, usually. He was hanging around the railway station in Lahore looking for work when he met a charming man who bought him tea and gave him a little money. The man, of course, was in fact a covert agent from the gang. And Ahmed says that the man said that he got a great job for him, except that it was 200-plus miles away in Rawalpindi, which is where that apartment is.

SADDI AHMED: (Through interpreter) He persuaded me in a very sweet and gentle way. He told me not to stress out. He said, don't worry, you'll get your money, a permanent job, and prosperity will come to your house.

REEVES: So, Steve, here's where the trickery really starts. The man arranged to meet Ahmed in the precincts of the local law courts the next day. He claimed this was just to get legal documents that Ahmed had to have to travel by bus to his new job without being stopped at the many checkpoints on the way. In fact, this was sort of a charade. Sitting outside the courts, apparently pretending to be some kind of lawyer, the man took Ahmed's thumb print - remember, he's illiterate. And he also ordered Ahmed to state that the reason he was traveling was to donate a kidney to a sick relative. And he filmed Ahmed on his mobile while he was saying that.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) I asked him, what's a kidney go to do with getting a job? He said, we're just recording this statement so you won't be stopped by the police. We won't actually take your kidney.

REEVES: So Ahmed set off, still full of hope. And when he arrived in Rawalpindi, an agent met him and drove him to the apartment, several dozen other victims already inside. And he was pushed in, and the door was locked behind him.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) That's when I got frightened. I said to myself, something's wrong. I've been cheated.

REEVES: Ahmed was a prisoner for 28 days. He says he didn't resist, for example, when he was taken to the clinic for pre-op tests because he was worried that mobile-phone movie somehow made him party to the crime.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) They implicated us and then imprisoned us. We were worried about being prosecuted.

REEVES: He and the other prisoners spent most of their time weeping, he says. Ahmed was lucky. He says the police raided just hours before his kidney was due to be taken out.

INSKEEP: Well, Philip, I'm sure that the people in that apartment are not the only people to whom this has ever happened. What are authorities doing now?

REEVES: They've arrested four people so far. And they've charged them with offenses, including abducting and imprisoning people. They say they're now searching for four doctors who are apparently the kingpins. Now, Steve, some of those imprisoned in the apartment told me that even though they were held there against their will and didn't know that they were expected to donate an organ when they arrived, they did, after a while, expect to be paid for their kidneys. That's what they were told. They expected about $2,700. So I went to see Aizaz Azam, a detective who's closely involved in this case and who took part in the raid, and asked him if these people really were prisoners.

AIZAZ AZAM: (Through interpreter) You didn't see what we saw. The doors were locked. People were sitting inside, too frightened even to go to the window. Some said they'd been there for three months, even four. No one who enters this slaughterhouse leaves until he's given up a kidney.

REEVES: Azam, by the way, is 28. And this is his first big case. He's finding it pretty distressing.

AZAM: (Through interpreter) I feel troubled, disturbed in my soul. It's the same for all the officers who went on the raid. When we sit down together, we're all troubled by this.

REEVES: These criminal gangs make huge profits. Some of these kidneys go to so-called medical tourists who come in from North America, from the Middle East. And tackling this issue is not easy. Babar Nawaz Khan is chair of the Human Rights Committee in Pakistan's Parliament. He's calling for tighter laws, including life imprisonment for organ trafficking. He also wants a nationwide organ donor program. And Khan says that when the criminals heard about his campaign, this is what happened.

BABAR NAWAZ KHAN: They tried to approach me. I had very good, good offers.

REEVES: What do you mean?

KHAN: Good offers mean money.

REEVES: Who offered you money?

KHAN: Parts of the mafia.

REEVES: They offered you money?

KHAN: Yeah.

REEVES: So the mafia contact you. And they say, we'll give you a lot of money, to do what?

KHAN: To stop making the law, stop implementing it.

REEVES: How did they contact you? Did they call you by telephone?

KHAN: No. I was in the market. One of the guy come to me, and he said that we can do this for you.

REEVES: What? He just walks up to you while you were shopping?

KHAN: Yeah. Yeah, and I was alone.

REEVES: And Khan says he's also been getting similar messages on his mobile. And he's handed these over to law enforcement.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Philip Reeves telling us about illegal organ harvesting of living people in Pakistan.

And, Philip, what does this practice say about Pakistani society?

REEVES: It says that the judicial system, the legal system and the police system is still extremely weak here. And it is also a reflection of how people are willing to use class, power, money, superior education in order to generate wealth from the most vulnerable people in this society. And that, I think for many Pakistanis, is a very uncomfortable reality.

INSKEEP: Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Philip Reeves, who's covered South Asia for many years.

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