For decades, the Chinese Communist Party depended on executed prisoners to bolster its organ transplant trade.
Then it emerged that government leaders were relying on persecuted minorities to boost their bank.
But despite claims that all harvested body parts now stem strictly from "voluntary" donors after death, human rights activists and international leaders are collecting evidence that the beleaguered Uighur Muslim community in Xinjiang province, also known as East Turkistan, could be the latest in a long line of state-sanctioned "victims" being killed for their hearts, lungs, liver, kidneys and other vital body parts – sometimes extracted from their bodies while still alive.
Earlier this month, two Uighur activist organizations – the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement and the East Turkistan Government in Exile – filed a complaint to the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the Beijing leadership, alleging that the top brass had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uighurs, including the stealing of organs from the mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic group and urging an inquiry.
The move comes on the heels of a damning report finalized earlier this year by the seven-person, London-based China Tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the renowned international criminal tribunal prosecutor responsible for ensuring that disgraced Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević was charged the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with war crimes.
The Tribunal determined with "certainty beyond a reasonable doubt" that "in China, forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time." While the bulk of the victims are said to have been the Falun Gong, a Buddhist-centric religious and ethnic minority, there is a growing cause for concern that Uighurs are becoming an even greater target.
"By focusing on a single captive population, the CCP has essentially evolved from what I call 'harvesting 1.0' – a system as geographically diffuse as Falun Gong practitioners – to 'harvesting 2.0,'" Ethan Gutmann, co-founder of the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC) and a 2017 Nobel Prize nominee, told Fox News. "The current system – the systematic selection of healthy young people for live organ extraction, transport of organs to industrial-scale hospitals, and transplant to foreign and domestic recipients – is faster, more efficient, and better hidden from the eyes of the world."
According to multiple survivors and family members seeking refuge abroad, Chinese officials started exhaustive medical examinations – involving ultrasound and blood samples – of those in Xinjiang around four years ago. But immediately, suspicions were raised that the data was being used to ascertain who had the healthiest organs for "donation."
"This selection was purely racial: over half of the population of Xinjiang, the Han Chinese, were exempt from the medical tests," Gutmann said.
In a testimony provided to Fox News via the London-based World Uyghur Congress, Uighur gulag survivor Omer Bakari said he underwent his first round of forced blood and urine sample, along with an eye and full-body exam, at a Pichan police station in late March 2017. He said the following month he was made to undergo a second exam at a hospital before "being thrown" into a Karmay prison where he was beaten with a whip and surrounded by others in the community who were left "hanging like meat" in cells. He suspects he was being tested as a potential candidate to be organ-plucked.
Similarly, Gulbahar Jelilova, 46, stated that she was seized by Chinese authorities in May 2017 after traveling to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to pick up a shipment of goods for her exporting business.
She alleged that she was then coerced into making a false confession that she had transferred money to a Turkish company she had never even heard of, and pledged that throughout her 15-month incarceration the women were all given tablets that stopped their menstrual cycle, and that she at one point early on was stripped naked for a medical examination.
Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas, who has extensively studied the illicit organ harvesting issue, highlighted that at Kashgar airport in Xinjiang, there are even signs in various languages signifying the route for transporting organs to the aircraft for exportation abroad. Photographs published in September 2018 show "priority lanes" for this very purpose.
Adding to the obscurity surrounding the possible targeting of the Uighur Muslims is the emergence of reports indicating that many who go to China for life-saving organs come from the wealthy Gulf States; thus the demand for "halal" organs – from bodies untouched by dietary choices such as pork and from those who have followed a diet in keeping with the tenants of Islam – are in demand.
Gutmann asserted that while there are no known advertisements for "halal organs," the phrase has become a useful shorthand for several pieces of evidence," which includes documentation of "gulf state organ tourists in Tianjin Central Hospital, the worlds largest transplant center."
"Go back a few years, and the foreign entrance to the hospital website politely asked if you preferred to continue in English or Arabic," he continued. "More recently, at least one Chinese hospital openly advertises to the world that it has a very nice Muslim prayer room and a halal restaurant."
While experts say the most significant market is domestic, organ shoppers hail from far and wide.
"The biggest customers are wealthy or politically connected local Chinese," Matas said. "The biggest foreign customers are now Japanese, South Koreans, and Saudis."
Salih Hudayar, prime minister of the East Turkistan Government in Exile, pointed out that "Uighur prisoners have also been transferred to Heilongjiang Province near the Korean border; it is known that Korea is a big market for organs."
But getting to the bottom of the matter is profoundly challenging for outside investigators, given the widespread suppression in Xianjing.
More than one million Uighurs are estimated to be "disappeared" into concentration camps – what Beijing refers to as "re-education camps" and a necessary national security tool against Islamic extremism. Moreover, victims' bodies are quickly disposed of – family members are typically told that their otherwise healthy loved one died suddenly and are under close supervision by authorities when they view and bury the body.
Nonetheless, China has repeatedly denied the use of unethical organ transplant practices, maintaining that it stopped using the organs from executed prisoners in 2015.
Officials have accused the China Tribunal of perpetuating "rumors."
Yet a probe published in the BMC Medical Ethics journal in November accused China of "systematic falsification and manipulation of official organ transplant datasets" to obscure just how few voluntary donors had registered, compared to how many transplant surgeries occurred.
Sometimes referred to as "medical genocide" by activists, the fast and furious transplant trade is estimated to make some $1 billion a year for the Beijing back pocket.
"One or two of China's hospitals could have matched the average of about 6,000 liver transplants performed annually in the entire United States since 2000," stated the U.S.-based China Organ Harvest Research Center, which claims to have combed through hundreds of transplant hospitals in China and their revenue, bed counts, bed utilization rates, surgical expertise, training programs, state funding and more, for its findings. "While Chinese officials claim that the country performs about 10,000 transplants a year, this annual figure is easily surpassed by just a few hospitals. Based on government-imposed minimum capacity requirements, the 164 approved transplant hospitals could have conducted more than 70,000 transplants per year."
Chinese medical authorities boast that the country performs the most transplants in the world – surpassing the 40,000 that happen annually in the U.S. – but the circumstance of its "voluntary" nature remains murky.
"Most Chinese are reluctant to donate their organs given their traditions, so we believe that forced organ harvesting is still continuing. We highly suspect that it is happening in East Turkistan due to the fact that many of the bodies of victims who died in the concentration camps and prisons haven't been returned to their families," noted Hudayar. "In the instances that the bodies were returned their families, there were visible stitches on parts of the bodies like the kidneys."
He also emphasized that thousands of Uighurs "were secretly transferred to prisons inside Chinese provinces like Henan, where there are five known Chinese hospitals that have been implicated by researchers for being involved in organ harvesting."
"Given its record on religious freedom, we have no reason to trust Communist China's denials," contended Gary Bauer, commissioner for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). "The government's lack of transparency is in itself very revealing. Unfortunately, most victims of this outrageous practice die as a result, so they are not able to speak about their suffering."
But despite grave concerns being voiced by the international community as it pertains to possible organ harvesting and the Uighurs, no country nor international agency is yet to actually take on a formal investigation and prosecutorial process.
The U.S. State Department and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to further requests from Fox News for comment.