A senior Nigerian politician, his wife, and a doctor have been convicted of organ trafficking, in the first verdict of its kind under the Modern Slavery Act.
Ike Ekweremadu, 60, a former deputy president of the Nigerian senate, his wife, Beatrice, 56, and Dr Obinna Obeta, 51, were found guilty of facilitating the travel of a young man to Britain with a view to his exploitation after a six-week trial at the Old Bailey.
They criminally conspired to bring the 21-year-old Lagos street trader to London to exploit him for his kidney, the jury found.
The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had been offered an illegal reward to become a donor for the senator’s daughter after kidney disease forced her to drop out of a master’s degree in film at Newcastle University, the court heard. Sonia Ekweremadu was found not guilty.
She cried in court as her parents were sent down from the dock.
In February 2022 the man was falsely presented to a private renal unit at Royal Free hospital in London as Sonia’s cousin in a failed attempt to persuade medics to carry out an £80,000 transplant. For a fee, a medical secretary at the hospital acted as an Igbo translator between the man and the doctors to help try to convince them he was an altruistic donor, the court heard.
The prosecutor Hugh Davies KC told the court the Ekweremadus and Obeta had treated the man and other potential donors as “disposable assets – spare parts for reward”. He said they entered an “emotionally cold commercial transaction” with the man.
The behaviour of Ekweremadu, a successful lawyer and founder of an anti-poverty charity who helped draw up Nigeria’s laws against organ trafficking, showed “entitlement, dishonesty and hypocrisy”, Davies told the jury.
He said Ekweremadu, who owns several properties and had a staff of 80, “agreed to reward someone for a kidney for his daughter – somebody in circumstances of poverty and from whom he distanced himself and made no inquiries, and with whom, for his own political protection, he wanted no direct contact”.
Ike Ekweremadu and wife, Beatrice.
Ike Ekweremadu and wife, Beatrice. Photograph: Ike Ekweremadu
Davies added: “What he agreed to do was not simply expedient in the clinical interests of his daughter, Sonia, it was exploitation, it was criminal. It is no defence to say he acted out of love for his daughter. Her clinical needs cannot come at the expense of the exploitation of somebody in poverty.”
Ekweremadu, who denied the charge, told the court he was the victim of a scam. Obeta, who also denied the charge, claimed the man was not offered a reward for his kidney and was acting altruistically. Beatrice denied any knowledge of the alleged conspiracy. Sonia did not give evidence.
WhatsApp messages shown to the court revealed Obeta charged Ekweremadu 4.5m naira (about £8,000) made up of an “agent fee” and a “donor fee”.
Ekweremadu and Obeta admitted falsely claiming the man was Sonia’s cousin in his visa application and in documents presented to the hospital.
Davies said Ekweremadu ignored medical advice to find a donor for his daughter among genuine family members. He said: “At no point in time was there ever any intention for a family member close, medium or distant to do what could be paid for from a pool of donors.”
The judge, Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson, will pass sentence on 5 May.
The chief crown prosecutor, Joanne Jakymec, said: “This was a horrific plot to exploit a vulnerable victim by trafficking him to the UK for the purpose of transplanting his kidney.
“The convicted defendants showed utter disregard for the victim’s welfare, health and wellbeing and used their considerable influence to a high degree of control throughout, with the victim having limited understanding of what was really going on here.”
DI Esther Richardson, from the Metropolitan police’s modern slavery and exploitation command, said: “This is a landmark conviction and we commend the victim for his bravery in speaking against these offenders.”
This story was amended on 23 March 2023 to reflect the fact that Sonia Ekweremadu was found not guilty in the case.