Urban Legend Or Gruesome Reality? Immigrants And Human Organ Trafficking

This 2007 image from Nepal's Cavre Valley, where it is said that in every family one person sold an organ for money.
This 2007 image from Nepal's Cavre Valley, where it is said that in every family one person sold an organ for money.
Marco Accossato

TURIN — There are journeys even more awful than the perilous crossings in rickety boats made by would-be immigrants trying to reach European shores. In these trips instead – made to Pakistan, Iran, Egypt or certain Eastern European countries – people sell a part of themselves: a journey of transplants, to places where the human organ market is legal.

And indeed among those same desperate refugees who arrive on the coasts of Sicily and Lampedusa, there is a growing risk of crossing paths with an organ broker on the black market. Alarm for this practice is now widespread.

These brokers lurk either before or after the crossing — on the lookout for people willing to do anything to reach a better life. They latter are offered money in exchange for a kidney, or part of their liver. Between the urban legends, the true stories and the unimaginable, in times of desperation authorities consider every possibility.

In 2009 the then Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni spoke during the release of a UNICEF humanitarian report, saying that 400 children were missing from Lampedusa. This shocking news was never confirmed, but it has been noted that, in addition to the countries where it is legal to buy and sell organs, Pakistan, Mozamique and Moldova were also now crossroads on the black market for organs.

How much of this is just urban myth? In the past, note renal expert Giuseppe Segoloni and Mauro Salizzoni, head of the transplant center in Turin, they'd hear about "boys found on park benches, half dazed, with fresh scars along their sides. Today we hear about refugees who left and never arrived who were probably killed and just used as ‘organ machines.’”

Doctors say stories like these are not realistic, but that the truth is not so far off. “Wherever there is despair, there are organ traffickers.” And if these shady figures aren’t on the boats themselves, there are people who threaten kidnapping or offer deals to those who can’t pay.

In transit or online

“Extracting any organ,” explains Professor Salizzoni, “is a complex surgical process that you can’t do in a makeshift operating theater in a basement.” Any organ, after checking compatibility, must be harvested while the donor is alive with a pulse, excluding the theory of killing people for clandestine organ trafficking.

“In the clinics where known transplants take place legally, and where the buying and selling is not a known obstacle, the interventions are made in a professional manner," he explains. "Nobody would compromise their business with the trafficking of abducted men, women, or children’s dead bodies.”

Naturally, the organ trafficking business lives on the Internet — though this is most probably not the way those who have dissappeared came into contact with the brokers. For them, contact took place in transit.

Online instead, everything can be planned out from your sofa: The price is made by those who are selling, and just like cell phone offers, if you sign up your friend there’s a 20% discount.

For those who don’t use the black market websites, the price is decided by the brokers, a price which you can take or leave because there will always be someone more desperate than you ready to take the same price. A kidney bought in Yemen can go for $5,000 — to be resold for $60,000; In China they pay $15,000 and sell for $47,000 to $50,000; In Israel it's bought for $10,000 and sold for $135,000.

In Italy it is illegal to buy or sell organs, but bids from across the borders come through. The organ brokers aren’t just looking for desperate people. In the northern region of Piedmont alone, five cases of illegal organ trafficking are known to doctors. Among those is a well-off, 70-year-old entrepreneur who paid to go to Pakistan for a freshly harvested kidney, instead of facing continuous dialysis.

“He never told us, and we never asked how much it cost,” said one doctor at Turin’s Città del Salute hospital. Turns out the patient died a few days later from other causes, before ever leaving for his foreign transplant.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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