Health

Prisoners in China are still being used as organ donors, says inquiry

Do figures on Chinese organ donations add up?

Huang Xin/Xinhua/Eyevine

Transplant organs are still being sourced from executed prisoners in China, according to an inquiry in London initiated by a campaign group to investigate the issue.

Taking organs from prisoners is illegal according to an international convention, and the Chinese government previously said it had stopped the practice four years ago. But this week, the chair of the tribunal, Geoffrey Nice, said that he believes the practice is still widespread.

The inquiry was set up by campaign group the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China and has no legal power. Forced organ donation from prisoners has been suspected in China for decades, and the coalition asked the inquiry to investigate whether some hospitals in China are still boosting supplies of transplant organs from prisoners.

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The inquiry also investigated whether Uighurs and Falun Gong members have previously been and are still being used as organ donors. Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority in China, while Falun Gong is a belief system similar to Buddhism that is outlawed in China.

Multiple lines of evidence

The tribunal heard evidence that some hospitals in China offer organ transplants with very short waiting times. This would be impossible without a large bank of people with known tissue types who can be killed to order, said Nice, a former UK judge who previously prosecuted former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal.

The tribunal was told of an investigation run by another campaign group, the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, in 2018. The group asked researchers to pretend to be doctors and ring up senior transplant doctors in Chinese hospitals to try to book transplants. Some were offered waits as short as one or two weeks. In nine of the 12 hospitals contacted, doctors verbally confirmed that the organs would be sourced from Falun Gong members.

Some websites advertise in English for foreign patients to visit Chinese hospitals for transplants, says David Matas, a Canadian human rights lawyer. Selling organs to foreigners is against an international convention known as the Declaration of Istanbul.

People who had been released from detainment camps in China testified at the inquiry. Some said they had been forced to have medical checks of their internal organs, such as ultrasound scans.

Recent reforms

However, all this evidence is circumstantial, and no one has been able to directly observe or prove that transplant organs are still being sourced from prisoners.

There have been claims for decades that prisoners were being used as organ donors in China. Several thousand transplants were reported in the country every year, yet until recently there was little public understanding of the concept of brain death, says Jacob Lavee, an Israeli heart surgeon who is a member of campaign group Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting. In other countries, almost all transplants come from people who end up brain dead, but this accounts for less than 1 per cent of all deaths, which is why organs are such a scarce commodity.

1561123663_714_Prisoners-in-China-are-still-being-used-as-organ-donors-says-inquiry Prisoners in China are still being used as organ donors, says inquiry
Falun Gong is outlawed in China

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Around 2010, medical staff in China began to be trained in how to recognise brain death. Around this time, public campaigns to get people to register as voluntary organ donors began, and the Chinese government said organs stopped being taken from prisoners in 2015.

Anomalous figures

But earlier this year, Lavee and two colleagues posted a study online suggesting that there are anomalies in China’s own transplant figures. For example, they said that, during a period in 2016, 640 transplants were reported, yet there were only 30 recorded voluntary donors. This would mean that each donor yielded an average of over 21 organs – which is medically impossible. In the UK, the average figure is about three per donor.

“The Chinese government always follows the World Health Organization’s guiding principles on human organ transplants, and has strengthened its management on organ transplants in recent years,” a spokesperson from the Chinese Embassy in London said in a statement. “We hope the British people will not be misled by rumours.”

Patrick Poon of Amnesty International says that his organisation has been unable to confirm if executed prisoners are still a source of organs in China. “We do know that political prisoners in China are subjected to horrific abuses, and are particularly concerned about the internment of up to a million Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities,” says Poon.

Academic boycott?

However, Nice’s China Tribunal found on Monday that there isn’t enough evidence to determine whether organs are being taken from Uighur people interned in “re-education camps” in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

But the inquiry said there was enough evidence to conclude that forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China, and that “Falun Gong practitioners have been one – and probably the main – source of organ supply”.

Adnan Sharif, a British kidney surgeon who is a member of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, says transplant doctors from other countries should refuse to collaborate with their Chinese colleagues until the unethical practices stop.

Jean-Pierre Mongeau of The Transplantation Society, a membership organisation for transplant doctors, says his organisation “has worked diligently to curtail commercial transplantation and the use of executed prisoners and to replace this practice with ethical programmes. However, [it is not our role] to police international transplant activities.”

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