A wealthy Nigerian politician, his academic wife and a ‘middleman’ doctor were today all found guilty of trafficking a penniless market trader to the UK to harvest his kidney in a NHS hospital.
In the first case of its kind in the UK, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, 60, his wife Beatrice, 56, and Dr Obinna Obeta, 50, all face up to ten years in jail after they were convicted at the Old Bailey of conspiring to exploit a young man from Lagos who said he was ‘treated like a slave’.
The Ekweremadus’ daughter Sonia, 25, who was to receive a kidney from the trafficking victim, wept as she was cleared of the same charge this morning. But she tearfully hugged her father and mother as they were sent down from the dock after being remanded in custody.
The 21-year-old street trader from Lagos was brought to the UK last year to provide a kidney to Sonia in an £80,000 private transplant at the Royal Free Hospital in Camden, north London. He claimed he was told to pretend to be Sonia’s cousin to get the transplant approved.
But a consultant working in the NHS hospital refused to remove the vital organ having become suspicious because the young man appeared initially unaware he was the donor of the kidney and was clearly not 41 as his passport claimed. The Nigerian national would later tell police he had no idea his kidney was to be removed until he was taken to the Royal Free to meet the surgeon.
The victim, who cannot be named, later ran away, sleeping rough for three days, before walking into Staines Police Station on May 5 2022. He burst into tears as he told officers that he had been trafficked into the UK from Nigeria and that someone was trying to take one of his organs.
Nigerian senator Ike Ekweremadu, 60, and his wife Beatrice Ekweremadu, 56, have been convicted at the the Old Bailey of illegally transporting a man to the UK in February 2022 to provide a kidney for their 25-year-old daughter Sonia
The family arranged the trafficking of the man with the help of ‘middleman’ Obinna Obeta (pictured), a Nigerian doctor who also had a transplant in the UK
Sonia (pictured outside court) suffers from a ‘significant and deteriorating kidney condition’ and requires dialysis until she receives a transplant, the court has heard. She was cleared of taking part in the plot today
The moment the trafficking victim arrived at Staines Police Station in tears and told officers he was trafficked for his kidney
The Old Bailey heard he believed he was being brought to the UK to earn money for his family. He was also taken for blood tests in Nigeria, which he believed were for his visa, but these were actually to determine if his kidney was a medically suitable match to Sonia Ekweremadu.
The conspirators’ plan was for the victim to provide a kidney to Sonia for between £2,400 and £7,000 and the promise of work in the UK.
Beatrice and Sonia both burst into tears in the dock and hugged Ike as the unanimous verdicts were announced after 13 hours and 42 minutes.
Mr Justice Johnson ordered reports and adjourned sentence until May 5.
Obeta and Ike were remanded in custody along with Beatrice, who was previously on conditional bail throughout the trial.
Denying Beatrice bail, Mr Justice Johnson said: ‘I take into account that Beatrice Ekweremadu has extensive duties to look after her daughter who requires regular dialysis treatment. I am minded that Sonia can live under the care of her brothers and sisters.’
As her parents were taken down to the cells, Sonia continued to weep.
It is the first time defendants have been convicted under the Modern Slavery Act of an organ harvesting conspiracy.
The offence of conspiracy to arrange or facilitate the travel of another person with a view to their exploitation, under section 2(1) of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 carries the maximum of 10 years jail.
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.
‘We could not have done this without the help of our colleagues in the CPS, Human Tissue Authority and other partners who have worked tirelessly to achieve this result.
‘We do understand the challenges around modern slavery cases as no two investigations are the same. Specialist officers from the Met’s Modern Slavery and Exploitation team understand this and we will ensure victims are supported, signposted and safeguarded with the help of partners.’
The victim, a 21-year-old street trader from Lagos, was brought to the UK last year to provide a kidney to Sonia 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 claimed the donor was offered up to £7,000 and the promise of a better life in the UK.
It was alleged the defendants tried to convince medics at the Royal Free by pretending he was Sonia’s cousin when, in fact, they were not related.
When their transplant bid failed, Sonia Ekweremadu’s family, who have an address in Willesden Green, north-west London, switched to Turkey and set about finding more potential donors, it was alleged.
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 Staines in Surrey, crying and in distress.
Jurors heard how Sonia 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 recently had a private kidney transplant at the Royal Free with a Nigerian donor.
In a text, Diwe told his brother: ‘I had an extensive discussion last night with my classmate who had his transplant last month. I will brief you.’
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, the court was told.
In his UK Home Office visa application, the donor was described as Sonia’s cousin and the paperwork was supported by a letter from Ike, jurors heard.
The court was shown messages in which Ike 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.
One forwarded message from Diwe complaining of a ‘huge invoice’ from ‘Dr Chris’, saying: ‘It looks like they’re all out to exploit people’s unfortunate situation.’
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 Sonia smiling with him at a meal at a restaurant in London.
Royal Free consultant, Dr Peter Dupont, concluded 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, the court was told.
The victim, right, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was pictured smiling and sharing a meal with Sonia Ekweremadu (pictured left) – who was meant to be getting his kidney. He turned up at a police station last May and said he was trafficked for an organ and ‘treated like a slave’
Ekweremadu (left) has been an elected senator at the Abuja-based parliament for 20 years. His wife, five years his junior, (right outside court) is an academic and doctor and also a major public figure in Nigeria .
The couple are two of the most famous faces in the West African state, and had been visiting the UK when they were arrested
Both medics agreed on their assessment and in March last year Dr Dupont gave his decision but no reasons, citing patient confidentiality.
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.
They were asked why they did not look for a member of their own family to ‘step up’ and donate a kidney to their daughter.
Mr Davies asserted that for them it was ‘far better to buy one and let the medical risk go to someone you don’t know’.
Sonia Ekweremadu, who remains reliant on weekly dialysis, declined to give evidence but it was said on her behalf 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.’
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 he was sent down from the dock.