Several witnesses gave harrowing descriptions of people having their bodies cut open, some while still alive, in order to remove organs to be sold as commodities.
A London based International Tribunal claimed last week that “beyond reasonable doubt” the Chinese government is guilty of harvesting and trading human organs from Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience. Beijing has denied the many allegations of forced organ harvesting, but did not allow its London-based diplomats to attend and give evidence to the Tribunal.
Headed by Sir Geoffrey Nice, one of the world’s most distinguished human rights lawyers and lead prosecutor of Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the seven-member Tribunal, international experts on human rights and organ transplants, met on five days between December 2018 and April 2019 and heard evidence from more than 50 witnesses.
Several witnesses gave harrowing descriptions of people having their bodies cut open, some while still alive, in order to remove kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, corneas and even skin, which could then be sold as commodities. The Chinese transplant trade is said to be a $1 billion industry, with a liver being valued at about $150,000. An earlier 2016 report, the “Bloody Harvest”, written by award-winning human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian lawyer and politician David Kilgour, estimated that 100,000 organs are transplanted each year in Chinese hospitals.
While celebrating the ability to transplant an organ from one human being to another as a scientific and social triumph, the Tribunal’s report emphasised the principle of consent in any form of transplantation. Transplantation is built on trust and proper governance structures are required to underpin that trust. Removal of organs from a previously conscious and healthy person without their consent, clearly constitutes murder if the organs are vital to life. Most transplantation of solid organs can therefore only take place from a cadaver.
It was from prisoner’s cadavers that the Chinese began the practice of organ removal as far back as the 1970s. A witness, Professor Huige Li, gave testimony of Zhong Haiyuan, a schoolteacher from Jiangxi Province, who was sentenced to death for her “counter-revolutionary” thoughts in 1978. The execution was carried out by police officers who were ordered not to kill Zhong immediately. “The kidneys must be harvested before she dies”, they were instructed, “because the army doctors wanted high quality kidneys from a living person”.
Another gruesome account was given in testimony by Enver Tohti, a former surgeon from the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, now living in London. He was ordered to go to the Western Mountain Execution Grounds where he heard the sound of multiple executions from gunshots. Tohti saw that all but one of the 20 executed people had been shot in the head. The exception was the victim he was ordered to operate on who had been shot through the right chest rather than the head. Tohti supposed that this was to keep the victim’s heart beating. He said that the victim was tied down on a trolley and he and his team were ordered to “cut deep and work fast”. According to Tohti, the victim was not anaesthetised when he removed the liver and both kidneys. He concluded that the victim was still alive because the skin bled during the removal.
Conscious of the appalling image to the country, China pledged to stop using executed prisoners as a source of organ transplants in 2006 and move to a volunteer donation system. So, did they keep this pledge? The Tribunal concluded that there was no evidence that the practice had stopped. On the contrary, it continues apace and a simple calculation explains why.
China prioritised organ transplants in its national strategy in 2000 and invested heavily in research, training and hospitals, resulting in the establishment of a huge organ transplantation apparatus. Currently, there are upwards of 146 licensed hospitals approved for transplantation in China, but there also is a significant number of unapproved hospitals, taking the number to well over 700. A calculation based on the number of beds in just the licensed hospitals and an assumption of only 12 procedures per bed per annum, leads to an approximation of about 70,000 transplants in China every year. In 2013, a formal voluntary donation scheme was established in China and in 2017 the declared number of registered donors was 375,000, resulting in 5,146 “eligible” donors, those who have died or consented to donation of their organs. Somehow these 5,146 donors gave 70,000 organs for transplant! This is clearly impossible and the only credible explanation is that China is still forcibly extracting organs.
Support for this explanation was provided to the Tribunal by investigators who made telephone calls from outside China to about 80 Chinese hospitals, pretending to have the need for a transplant. Of these, 29 admitted that organs came from prisoners or Falun Gong practitioners, while 10 hospitals said that the organ source was secret and could not be discussed over the phone. The others refused to discuss the matter.
There is also a mismatch in waiting times between China and the rest of the world for organ transplants. In the UK, for example, the average waiting time for a liver transplant for adults is 135 days. For kidneys it’s approximately 2.5 to 3 years, while for hearts and lungs it’s frequently longer. The Japanese journalist, Yukiharu Takahashi provided the Tribunal with an account from hospitals of organs being available in only two weeks, a figure supported by other witnesses. Such waiting times could not be accounted for by good fortune. Predetermining the availability of an organ for transplant is impossible in any system dependent on a voluntary organ donation. The Tribunal concluded that as they were offered at short notice, those organs were from people still alive at the time of the call.
The Tribunal stopped short of labelling China’s actions as genocide, noting that some prisoners had been released, but claimed it was “beyond reasonable doubt” that China was guilty of crimes against humanity. The International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC) issued a statement: “It is no longer a question of whether organ harvesting is happening, that dialogue is well and truly over. We need an urgent response to save these people’s lives.” The response from the UK government was lukewarm, saying only that “the UK government is very concerned about human rights in China, and ministers raise these concerns regularly with their Chinese counterparts”. The chairman of the China Organ Transplantation Development Foundation predictably refuted any allegation of living organ collecting in the country.