Four face a minimum of five years in jail if convicted
Beijing: An upcoming trial for four Chinese men on charges of organ trafficking has ignited a public outcry, prompting authorities to enforce laws regarding organ transplants.
Led by a former organ donor surnamed Liu, the suspects allegedly organized four liver and kidney donations. Their new business foundered, however, when they were taken to court in December by a "donor" claiming back pay, according to the Haidian District Procuratorate in Beijing, which is handling the case.
"The trial, which might begin in April, is the country's first one on human organ trafficking," Qiu Zhiying, the procurator in charge, told China Daily on Tuesday.
If convicted, the suspects face at least five years in prison.
Illegal businesses in the organ trade ran rampant for years, expanding along with the rise in living organ transplants - that is, transplants using organs donated by living individuals.
Of the approximately 10,000 organ transplants performed in China last year, more than 3,000 were from living donors, almost six times that in 2008, official statistics showed.
"A considerable number of them were done with fake identities from hired donors," said vice health minister Huang Jiefu, also a leading liver transplant expert.
"Without intervention, China will become the biggest black market for living human organs, which will seriously affect the country's reputation and threaten patients' health," he told China Daily.
Under current regulations on human organ transplants, which banned organ trade in May 2007, living organ donations are restricted to spouses, blood relatives or people sharing family bonds through mutual support.
However, by keying in words like organ and agency, search engines lead to online brokers who recruit paid donors and help them find matching recipients. They then arrange operations at hospitals by making them "relatives" through forging documents in collaboration with lawyers and medical workers, industry insiders said.
At such an agency, a kidney is sold for about 150,000 yuan ($22,000), with roughly one-third going to the donor, who allegedly has to be young and healthy, reports said.
"Driven by a huge demand for the life-saving procedure, the lack of a proper and sustainable organ donation system and poor law enforcement, the black market became huge," said Li Ning, president of Beijing Youan Hospital and a liver transplant surgeon.
However, this "seriously affects social justice, fuels corruption and threatens patients' health", said Huang, adding that a third of liver donors later develop complications.
In clinical practice, the organs for transplant are mainly harvested from executed prisoners, Li noted, making China the only country in the world that still relys on death row inmates as the major source of organs.
A drop in the number of executions after China's Supreme People's Court began to review death penalty cases in 2007 led to a rise in living organ transplants and fueled to the black market, said Chen Zhonghua, the Chinese Medical Association's deputy director for transplants.
To address the issue, the Ministry of Health is now revising regulations to help eliminate illegal organ trading and lay the foundation for the establishment of an organ donation system, which would help ease the shortage, said Huang.
Ten designated Chinese cities, including Tianjin and Wuhan, will begin pilot organ donation projects in April, said Hao Linna, deputy director of the Red Cross Society of China.