A wealthy Nigerian politician and his wife have been jailed for plotting to traffic a young man to the UK to harvest his organ for their sick daughter in a legal first.
Following a landmark modern slavery case, multi-millionaire Senator Ike Ekweremadu, 60, his wife Beatrice, 56, and medical “middleman” Dr Obinna Obeta, 51, were found guilty at the Old Bailey in March.
Their victim, a poor street trader in Lagos, was brought to the UK to provide a kidney for the Ekweremadus’ 25-year-old daughter Sonia.
He fled in fear of his life and walked into a police station exactly a year ago to report what had happened after the Royal Free Hospital called a halt on the private £80,000 procedure.
In a televised sentencing on Friday, Mr Justice Johnson recognised Ike Ekweremadu’s “substantial fall from grace” as he jailed him for nine years and eight months.
Beatrice Ekweremadu was jailed for four years and six months and Obeta for 10 years.
The senior judge said: “People-trafficking across international borders for the harvesting of human organs is a form of slavery.
“It treats human beings and their body parts as commodities to be bought and sold.
“It is a trade that preys on poverty, misery and desperation.”
He told the defendants: “You each played a part in that despicable trade.”
On the question of harm to the victim if the intended transplant went ahead, he said: “He would have faced spending the rest of his life with only one kidney and without the requisite funding for the required aftercare.”
He added the risks had not been properly explained and there had been no consent “in any meaningful sense”.
During the hearing, the victim, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, said he only found out what was planned when he was taken to the north London hospital for an initial consultation.
In a statement read to court: “I would never (have) agreed to any of this.
“My body is not for sale.”
He spoke of his fears for his own safety and that of his family in Nigeria who had been visited and told to “drop” the case.
He said: “I cannot think about going home to Nigeria.
“These people are extremely powerful and I worry for my family.
“Even though I live here in the UK at the moment I know I need to be careful too.
“I have no-one here, no family, no friends.
“I am having to start my life again.
“I’m worried about my family in Nigeria but I have been told my dad had been visited and was told to drop the case in the UK.”
He told police he did not want to claim compensation from the “bad people” as it would be “cursed and bad luck”.
He said: “My plan now is to work and to get an education and to play football.”
It is the first time anyone has been convicted under the Modern Slavery Act of an organ-harvesting conspiracy.
Scotland Yard declined to say whether more charges would be brought but said the investigation was ongoing.
Police have highlighted soaring numbers of modern slavery cases in recent years with a small number involving organ harvesting.
Detective Superintendent Andy Furphy told the PA news agency: “Human trafficking for the purpose of organ removal is relatively rare in the UK, but what we have seen since the victim’s bravery is that this is now not the only investigation of that nature taking place in London.
“Although organ harvesting forms a very small percentage of modern slavery, human trafficking, we’re now starting to see more people coming forward.
“The victim of this case, a very brave young man, was exploited due to his vulnerable economic circumstances, by people that were powerful, wealthy, and that exerted control and dominance over him bringing into the UK for purposes of taking his kidney.
“Their motivation was to get a kidney for their daughter, without any thought of the process that that involved, any thought of aftercare, any thought for the victim of the modern slavery offence at all.
“My message to the public is to be vigilant.
“Modern slavery is prevalent across all of our communities in London, be it in labour exploitation, nail bars, car washes, the sex trade industry.
“If people are lurking in the background, controlling them, exerting some kind of dominance over people, then please just report any suspicion whatsoever.
“It might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and allow us to move forward with an investigation and prosecution.”
He added: “I’m incredibly proud of the team and their achievements, but we always put the victim first.
“I’m proud of the bravery of the victim in coming forward, which will encourage other people to do so as well.”
While it is lawful to donate a kidney, it becomes criminal if there is a reward of money or other material advantage.
The prosecution said the young man was offered up to £7,000 and the promise of a better life in the UK.
The defendants tried to convince medics at the Royal Free by pretending he was 25-year-old Ms Ekweremadu’s cousin when, in fact, they were not related.
As part of the plot, the victim was photographed sharing a meal with Sonia to create the false impression of a family relationship, jurors were told.
But medics at the Royal Free became concerned at the arrangement, citing the donor’s “incongruous” relationship with the recipient and their “disparity”.
When the transplant bid failed, Ms Ekweremadu’s family, who own £6 million worth of property and have an address in Willesden Green, north-west London, switched to Turkey and set about finding more potential donors, the court was told.
An investigation was launched after the victim ran away from London and slept rough for days before walking into a police station more than 20 miles away in Staines in Surrey, crying and in distress.
He told police how he fled in fear for his life after overhearing a plan to take him back to Nigeria for the procedure after the transplant plan in London failed.
Further inquiries led to Ike Ekweremadu, Nigeria’s deputy Senate president, as “sponsor” for the young man’s travel.
Ike and Beatrice Ekweremadu were arrested on June 21 last year as they arrived on a flight to Heathrow, stepping off the plane with 30,000 US dollars.
A search of Obeta’s address on the Old Kent Road in south London revealed a fake affidavit stating the victim and Sonia were biological cousins.
Examination of the defendants’ phones revealed a stream of messages detailing the progress of the failed organ transplant plan.
Sonia had become sick while studying for a masters degree at Newcastle University in December 2019.
Obeta was the former medical school classmate of Ike Ekweremadu’s brother and had undergone a kidney transplant at the Royal Free Hospital himself.
His donor also came from the street market in Lagos and knew the victim in the case.
The defendants denied conspiracy to arrange or facilitate the travel of another person with a view to exploitation, claiming they believed the victim was acting “altruistically”.
Sonia Ekweremadu was cleared of wrongdoing by the jury and watched her parents being sentenced from the public gallery.