A wealthy Nigerian politician and his wife are facing jail for an organ-harvesting plot involving a UK hospital following a landmark trial.
Senator Ike Ekweremadu, 60, his wife Beatrice, 56, and medical “middleman” Dr Obinna Obeta, 51, were found guilty at the Old Bailey of conspiring to arrange the travel of a young man with a view to exploiting him for his body part.
The Ekweremadus’ 25-year-old daughter, Sonia, who has a serious kidney condition, wept in court as she was cleared by the jury, which deliberated for nearly 14 hours.
It is the first time defendants have been convicted under the Modern Slavery Act of an organ-harvesting conspiracy which carried a maximum life sentence.
Following the guilty verdicts, Mr Justice Johnson remanded the defendants into custody to be sentenced on May 5.
Sonia Ekweremadu tearfully hugged her father as both her parents were sent down from the dock.
Speaking outside the Old Bailey, Detective Superintendent Andy Furphy said: “This is the first conviction of its kind in the UK.
“We could not have achieved this without the courage of one person, our victim survivor. I want to commend him for his bravery in speaking out.
“Modern slavery is all around us. We need the public’s help in identifying potential victims of trafficking and exploitation, to bring offenders to justice and to protect the vulnerable.”
Chief Crown Prosecutor Joanne Jakymec said: “This was a horrific plot to exploit a vulnerable victim by trafficking him to the UK for the purpose of transplanting his kidney.
“The convicted defendants showed utter disregard for the victim’s welfare, health and wellbeing and used their considerable influence to a high degree of control throughout, with the victim having limited understanding of what was really going on here.”
Detective Inspector Esther Richardson, from the Metropolitan Police’s Modern Slavery and Exploitation Command, said: “This is a landmark conviction and we commend the victim for his bravery in speaking against these offenders.”
The court had heard how the victim, a 21-year-old street trader from Lagos, was brought to the UK last year to provide a kidney to Sonia Ekweremadu for an £80,000 private transplant at the Royal Free Hospital in London.
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 donor 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 Ms Ekweremadu’s cousin when, in fact, they were not related.
When their transplant bid failed, Ms Ekweremadu’s family, who 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 young man 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.
Jurors heard that Sonia Ekweremadu was one of four siblings who had been privately educated in the UK.
She was studying for a masters degree at Newcastle University when she became ill in December 2019.
In September 2021, her father, a prominent Nigerian politician, enlisted the help of his medically trained brother, Diwe Ekweremadu, to search for a donor, the court heard.
Diwe, who remains in Nigeria, turned to former classmate Dr Obeta, of Southwark, south London, who had recently had a private kidney transplant at the Royal Free with a Nigerian donor.
Dr Obeta then engaged with Dr Chris Agbo, of Vintage Health Group, a medical tourism company, as well as an agent to arrange a visa for the donor, the court heard.
The donor, who knew the man who donated his kidney to Dr Obeta, was recruited from a Lagos street market where he made a few pounds a day selling phone accessories from a wheelbarrow.
He underwent tests in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, before arrangements were made to fly him to the UK last year with a visa, the court was told.
The court was shown messages in which Ike Ekweremadu discussed with his brother the costs, including the donor fee of millions of naira (Nigerian currency), it was alleged.
Ike kept his accountant wife informed of progress by text messages, jurors heard.
As the travel plans went ahead, Sonia was encouraged to establish a relationship with the donor through text messages, jurors were told.
Jurors were shown a picture of her smiling with him during a meal at a restaurant in London.
Royal Free consultant Dr Peter Dupont concluded that the donor was not an appropriate candidate after learning he had no counselling or advice about the risks of surgery and he lacked funds for the lifelong care he would need.
Undeterred, a “corrupt interpreter” was enlisted for £1,500 to help at the donor’s second hospital meeting with a surgeon, who agreed with the consultant.
On being informed the donor was unsuitable, Sonia Ekweremadu’s family immediately resumed their donor search, the court was told.
After walking into Staines police station, the original donor told police that he did not understand why he had been brought to the UK until he met Dr Dupont.
Relaying his fears, he told police: “The doctor said I was too young but the man said if you do not do it here he would carry me back to Nigeria and do it there.
“I was sleeping three days outside around, looking for someone to help me, save my life.”
In their trial, the defendants claimed they believed the donor was acting “altruistically”.
Ike Ekweremadu, who owns about 10 properties in Nigeria and Dubai, told jurors he had trusted the medical experts but suspected he was being “scammed”.
On how he treated the donor, prosecutor Hugh Davies KC asked: “From beginning to end it demonstrates all he was to you was a body part for sale? Because he was going to get work and he would be paid the 3.5 million naira, you felt you owed him nothing?”
The politician replied: “Never. It was a big scam.”
Beatrice Ekweremadu, who worked in the Nigerian auditor general’s office and has a PhD in accountancy, said her husband took care of the household finances and she was not involved in the donor search.
Sonia Ekweremadu, who remains reliant on weekly dialysis, declined to give evidence but it was said on her behalf that she knew nothing of a reward offered to donors.
Dr Obeta’s lawyer, Sally Howes KC, told jurors: “He was motivated by his desire to help a fellow citizen because no-one would understand the misery and pain like someone who had been through it themselves.”
A Royal Free London spokesperson said: “We are pleased that the trial has now come to a close and would like to pay tribute to the victim for his bravery in coming forward.
“National guidance for the clinical assessment of living donor transplantation, which applies to both our NHS and private patients, was followed in this case and a decision taken not to go ahead with the procedure.”