By Amjad Ali
The arrest of eight members of an organ trafficking syndicate in Pakistan last week has turned the spotlight on the continuing illegal trade of kidneys and other human organs in the impoverished nation of 240 million people, where the poor have often been led into selling their organs for rich clients from overseas.
For years, Pakistan has been used as a hub for the illegal kidney trade not only for local clients but also international kidney-seekers, largely from the Middle East, Africa and the United Kingdom.
Last week’s arrests are just the latest in Pakistani authorities’ repeated attempts to crack down on the practice.
One of the detainees, Fawad Mukhtar, is a doctor by profession and the alleged ringleader of an organ trafficking racket which illegally extracted 328 kidneys from people and transplanted them into clients.
Mukhtar has been arrested several times in the past for similar crimes in the eastern state for Punjab, but he and other accused managed to secure bail every time.
“The facts and figures that have come to us make the heart tremble,” Mohsin Naqvi, the chief minister of Punjab, said in a press conference on Sunday.
He said that the gang operated mainly in Punjab and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Mukhtar was assisted in the crime by a car mechanic who was working as his surgical assistant and also helped him search for vulnerable donors from different areas of the province.
The network charged up to 10 million Pakistani rupees (around $35,000) for a kidney transplant, but the “donors” – generally poor people – were paid just 100,000-150,000 rupees, as per the probe.
However, not all the transplants were successful, and at least three people died during the illegal procedures, including a Jordanian citizen
The victims include. Hira Umer, the daughter of famous Pakistani comedian Umer Sharif, who died of complications after receiving a kidney transplant in the Kashmir region in 2020.
Organ trafficking was criminalized in Pakistan in 2007 by the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Ordinance, followed by the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Act 2010.
Prior to the legislation, the country was considered a destination for “transplant tourism.”
Organ donation continues to be legal as long as it is done voluntarily by a relative or shown to be donated “without pressure or for money.”
However, illegal transplants continue to take place in many places in the country, with large amounts of money changing hands, at times with the involvement of the police.
One such hospital is situated in Rawalpindi, adjacent to capital Islamabad.
“My father used to undergo kidney dialysis two times a week, which was very painful, so we got him a transplant in Rawalpindi back in 2021,” a 33-year-old man from Islamabad told EFE on the condition of anonymity.
He said the “deal” was secured through an agent who was worked for the hospital.
The family paid a hefty sum of six million rupees or $21,000 in total for the entire procedure.
In 2017, doctors were caught mid-way through two illegal kidney transplants in the city of Lahore – also in Punjab – when authorities burst into a makeshift hospital even as the donors and clients – from Oman – were unconscious on the operating tables.
At the time, the doctors were allowed to finish the surgeries before they were arrested along with their assistants and the Omanis.
As per unofficial data, Pakistan ranks eighth in kidney-related diseases worldwide with more than 20 million patients and around 20,000 annual deaths.
Poverty continues to be the root cause for kidney trafficking in the country. The poor sell their kidneys to repay their loans or due to other financial reasons, sometimes under the pretext of donation.
Rasheed Hussain, a resident of Muzaffargarh in southern Punjab, now survives on one kidney.
Back in 2019, he sold a kidney to pay off a loan of 100,000 rupees ($350) to the owner of a brick kiln where he had been working for four years.
Hussain had borrowed the money for his daughter’s marriage.
“I would still be working there without pay if I had not paid the loan,” he told EFE.
A report by think-tank Global Financial Integrity titled “Transnational Crime and the Developing World” claims that worldwide organ trade is worth $840 million to $1.7 billion annually.
The crime is most prevalent in Asian nations such as India, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan, apart from several African nations.
The lack of safeguards and the lax attitude of authorities have resulted in some of these nations turning into well-known black markets of “transplant tourism” and trafficking. EFE