A wealthy Nigerian politician, his wife, and a "middleman", have been found guilty of an organ-harvesting plot involving a UK hospital, the first time defendants have been convicted of the crime under the Modern Slavery Act
On Thursday, 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.
The victim was a 21-year-old street trader from Lagos, who cannot be named for legal reasons. The man was brought to the UK last year to provide a kidney to Sonia for an £80,000 private transplant at the Royal Free Hospital in London, the court heard.
While it is legal 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.
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.
He told police that he did not understand why he had been brought to the UK until he meet staff at the Royal Free. 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,” he said.
Leading investigating officer, Detective Inspector Esther Richardson, from the Met’s Modern Slavery and Child Exploitation team, said: “This conviction sends out a clear message across the world, the UK will not tolerate the international industry in illegal organ removal.
“We could not have achieved this conviction without the help of one man, the victim survivor. I commend him for his utmost bravery," she said.
Jurors heard how Sonia was one of four siblings who had been privately educated in the UK. She had been studying for a masters degree at Newcastle University when she became ill in December 2019. She now relies on weekly dialysis treatments to survive, the court heard.
In September 2021, her father, a prominent Nigerian politician, enlisted the help of his medically-trained brother in Nigeria, Diwe Ekweremadu, to search for a donor, the court heard. Diwe turned to former classmate Dr Obeta, of South London, who recently had a private kidney transplant at the Royal Free with a Nigerian donor.
Obeta's role had extended to engaging with a medical tourism company and an agent to arrange a visa for the donor, the court heard.
The donor had known the man who donated his kidney to Dr Obeta. He was recruited from a Lagos street market where he made a few pounds a day selling phone accessories from a wheelbarrow, the court heard. He underwent tests in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, before arrangements were made to fly him to the UK last year.
In his UK Home Office visa application, the donor was described as Sonia’s cousin - despite them being of no relation - and the paperwork was supported by a letter from Ike, jurors heard. The court was shown messages in which Ike discussed with his brother the costs, including the donor fee of millions of naira. He kept his accountant wife informed of progress by text messages, jurors heard.
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 Sonia smiling with him at a meal at a London restaurant. Sonia Ekweremadu declined to give evidence in court, but it was said on her behalf she knew nothing of the reward offered to her donor.
Royal Free consultant, Dr Peter Dupont, concluded 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 in March last year, and Sonia Ekweremadu’s family immediately resumed their donor search, the court was told.
In their trial, the defendants claimed they believed the donor was acting “altruistically”. Ike Ekweremadu told jurors he had trusted the medical experts, but suspected he was being “scammed”.
The couple 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 claimed that for them, it was “far better to buy one and let the medical risk go to someone you don’t know”.
Justice Johnson remanded the defendants into custody. They will be sentenced in May.