Major South African hospital chain, CEO charged in international organ trafficking

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A major South African hospital chain and its chief executive have been charged after years of investigation into a human organ trafficking case that stretched from Israel to South Africa to Brazil, hospital officials and police said Thursday.

Police spokesman Vish Naidoo said 11 suspects were ordered to appear in court in November. He refused to name them, but the board of directors of the Netcare hospital chain said in a statement that the parent company, its chief executive officer, Dr. Richard Friedland, and its subsidiary in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal received subpoenas on Wednesday.

"The board has been advised that the allegations made are unjustified and that neither Netcare nor Dr. Friedland are guilty of any wrongdoing," the statement said, adding that Friedland would not be relieved of his duties pending trial.

"The board fully supports Dr Friedland and expresses its regret that the prosecuting authorities have seen fit to press charges against him and Netcare, particularly in view of the unqualified cooperation which Netcare and Dr. Friedland have given to the investigating and prosecuting authorities to assist in those investigations," said Netcare, which operates hospitals across South Africa, among them some of the continent's most respected facilities.

The case first became known in 2003. That year and the next, arrests were made in Brazil and South Africa. Investigators said Brazilians who passed a medical checkup were flown to South Africa, where their kidneys were extracted for transplants into Israeli patients. Eastern Europeans were also donors.

It is believed more than 100 illegal kidney transplants were performed at Netcare's St. Augustine Hospital in the eastern coastal city of Durban in 2001 and 2002.

Police spokesman Naidoo said three people — a recipient and two "coordinators" — were convicted in 2003. The police probe, which involved investigators from several foreign countries, did not stop there, he said.

Naidoo said the case involved selling organs, which is illegal in South Africa and most of the rest of the world.

There is a high demand and small supply of kidneys, which can be taken from a living donor. The black market is believed to be thriving around the world. India in particular has been a source of organs, with some reports of poor laborers being duped or forced into giving up kidneys, which were then transplanted into wealthy people who would come to India from around the world for the operations.

The U.N. World Health Organization calls the shortage of organs "a universal problem."