In a landmark judgment under the UK Modern Slavery ACT 2015, an embattled Nigerian Senator Ike Ekweremadu and his wife, Beatrice, were convicted on May 5, having been found guilty of offences bothering on organ trafficking in a trial that lasted over 10 months.
At a sentencing hearing on Friday, Ekweremadu was jailed for nine years and eight months. His wife Beatrice was sentenced to four years and six months imprisonment, while the family doctor Obinna Obeta received a 10-year prison term.
The judge held that the defendants had intended harm to the 21-year-old donor they flew into the UK from Nigeria for a procedure that would have resulted in him spending the rest of his life with only one kidney and without the requisite funding for the required aftercare.
“In each of your cases the offence you committed is so serious that neither a fine nor a community sentence can be justified,” Justice Johnson told the defendants.
He added that the risks had not been properly explained to the victim and there had been no consent “in any meaningful sense”.
During trial, it was alleged that the 21-year-old street trader was to be rewarded for donating the organ to Sonia Ekweremadu, in an £80,000 private procedure at London’s Royal Free Hospital.
The prosecution claimed the donor was offered up to £7,000 along with the promise of a better life in the UK, but did not understand until his first appointment with a consultant at the hospital that he was there for a kidney transplant.
It was also claimed that the man was falsely presented as Sonia Ekweremadu’s cousin in a failed attempt to persuade medics to carry out the procedure at the Royal Free Hospital.
While it is lawful to donate a kidney in the UK, it becomes criminal if money or another material advantage is rewarded.
Throughout the trial, the senator denied all accusations and maintained that he was the victim of a scam. His wife Beatrice also vehemently denied knowing anything about the purported conspiracy.
In denying the charge, the family doctor Obeta claimed the man was not offered a reward for his kidney and was acting altruistically.
“In Nigerian society, there is an expression ‘everyone is each other’s keeper’ and the altruistic donation of organs is not regarded there as such a rare event as it is in this country,” defense lawyer Martin Hicks said.
What the law says about organ trafficking
Modern slavery in the UK encompasses a broad range of offences including forced labour, domestic servitude, human trafficking and illegal organ removal, attracting a maximum sentence of life impriosonment.
In part, the Human Tissue Act 2004 was introduced to ensure that living organ donors have made an informed and voluntary decision to donate their organ; free from duress, coercion and reward.
The Act makes any commercial dealings in human organs for transplant a criminal offence. It also makes it illegal to remove an organ for transplant from a living person unless the donor and recipient are genetically related.
Organ transplantation in the UK, therefore, depends entirely on the generosity of donors and their families who are prepared to give consent.
Under section 3 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, “exploitation includes: slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour…removal of organs where a person is encouraged required or expected to do anything which involves the commission of an offence under ss 32 or 33 of the Human Tissue Act 2004 (prohibition of commercial dealings in organs and restrictions on use of live donors); securing services etc by force, threats or deception; securing services etc from children and vulnerable persons (eg, physically or mentally ill or disabled).”
Other measures taken by the UK government to prevent trafficking in addition to the Human Tissue Act 2004 include: the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings which entered into force on 1 April 2009, and the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Organs signed by the UK in March 2015 which invites governments to criminalise trafficking in human organs, and to take measures to protect victims.
In Nigeria, the law provides guidelines on Human organs obtained from deceased persons for the purpose of transplantation or treatment, or medical or dental training or research, but is silent on organ transplantation carried out on living donors.
Section 55 of the National Health Act 2014 (4) states that “a person who contravenes or fails to comply with any provision of this section or who charges a fee for a human organ commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a minimum of five years without option of fine.
However, in practice, organ transplantation is mostly carried out on living donors according to a medical expert at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Olayiwola Shittu.
“We only practice living donor transplantation in Nigeria, especially of solid organ like the kidney. The donor is interviewed independently and assessed for suitability and fitness for organ donation.
“There should be no element of coercion or even inducement. Organ donation is completely altruistic, voluntary, and no reward except the satisfaction that someone has been helped. All these elements must be evident in the interview,” Shittu said.
Timeline of Ekweremadu’s organ trafficking timeline
The couple were arrested on June 23, 2022 at Heathrow airport on their way to Instabul, Turkey to procure a kidney from another donor after the 21-year-old donor from Nigeria David Nwamini expressed reservations about the process, claiming he had been deceived. The Ekweremadus were arraigned at the Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court same day where they plead not guilty to the charges of human trafficking and organ harvesting brought against them under Britain’s Modern Slavery Act. They were subsequently remanded in custody.
On July 7, 2022, the trial continued at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court where the Nigerian High Commission in the UK showed support and the prosecution accepted that the kidney donor who initially claimed to be 15 years old was in fact 21 years.
A 50-year-old doctor, Obinna Obeta, was later arraigned before the Bexley Magistrates’ Court on July 13, 2022 for allegedly working with the Ekweremadus in the plot to harvest
The Old Bailey court granted bail to Beatrice on July 26, 2022, but denied the request for bail for her husband who remained in custody throughout the duration of trial.
On March 7, 2023, Ekweremadu told the court he feared “everybody was obviously taking advantage of my daughter’s ill health,” and during cross-examination two days later, added he sought to buy a kidney for his sick daughter based on advice from a medical practitioner.
The Court, however, found the accused guilty of organ trafficking on March 23, 2023 and slated May 5 for their sentencing.
In the weeks and days leading up to the sentencing, several appeals were sent to the court, seeking leniency for the couple in view of the fact that they were ignorant of the law and first-time offenders.
A former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the Nigerian National Assembly, ECOWAS Parliament and the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, all urged the court to put on a human face and consider the health condition of the ailing daughter of the couple who still requires a kidney transplant to stay alive.
It is believed these appeals may have influenced the decision of the court in delivering Friday’s judgement. Offenders sentenced to two years or more in the UK will normally serve half their sentence in prison and serve the rest of the sentence in the community on licence.
It is not yet clear if the defendants, or the Nigerian government, would appeal the judgment. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old man has reportedly begged to be allowed to stay in the UK to get and an education and pursue his dream of footballer as her feared for his life if he is returned to Nigeria.