A former Deputy Senate President in Nigeria, Ike Ekweremadu, his wife, Beatrice, a ‘middleman’ doctor, Obinna Obeta, were on Thursday all found guilty of trafficking a penniless market trader, David Nwamini, to the UK to harvest his kidney in a NHS hospital.
In the first case of its kind in the UK, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, his wife, and Dr. Obeta all face up to ten years in jail after they were convicted at the Old Bailey of conspiring to exploit Nwamini who said he was “treated like a slave”.
The jury found that they conspired to bring the victim to London to exploit him for his kidney.
According to the UK Guardian, it is the first verdict of its kind under the Modern Slavery Act.
Ekweremadu his wife, Beatrice, daughter Sonia and Dr Obinna Obeta were found guilty of facilitating the travel of a young man to Britain with a view to his exploitation after a six-week trial at the Old Bailey.
They criminally conspired to bring the 21-year-old Lagos street trader to London to exploit him for his kidney, the jury found.
The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had been offered an illegal reward to become a donor for the senator’s daughter after kidney disease forced her to drop out of a master’s degree in film at Newcastle University, the court heard.
In February 2022 the man was falsely presented to a private renal unit at Royal Free hospital in London as Sonia’s cousin in a failed attempt to persuade medics to carry out an £80,000 transplant. For a fee, a medical secretary at the hospital acted as an Igbo translator between the man and the doctors to help try to convince them he was an altruistic donor, the court heard.
The prosecutor Hugh Davies KC told the court the Ekweremadus and Obeta had treated the man and other potential donors as “disposable assets – spare parts for reward”. He said they entered an “emotionally cold commercial transaction” with the man.
The behaviour of Ekweremadu, a successful lawyer and founder of an anti-poverty charity who helped draw up Nigeria’s laws against organ trafficking, showed “entitlement, dishonesty and hypocrisy”, Davies told the jury.
He said Ekweremadu, who owns several properties and had a staff of 80, “agreed to reward someone for a kidney for his daughter – somebody in circumstances of poverty and from whom he distanced himself and made no inquiries, and with whom, for his own political protection, he wanted no direct contact”.
Davies added: “What he agreed to do was not simply expedient in the clinical interests of his daughter, Sonia, it was exploitation, it was criminal. It is no defence to say he acted out of love for his daughter. Her clinical needs cannot come at the expense of the exploitation of somebody in poverty.”
Ekweremadu, who denied the charge, told the court he was the victim of a scam. Obeta, who also denied the charge, claimed the man was not offered a reward for his kidney and was acting altruistically. Beatrice denied any knowledge of the alleged conspiracy. Sonia did not give evidence.
WhatsApp messages showed to the court revealed Obeta charged Ekweremadu 4.5m naira (about £8,000) made up of an “agent fee” and a “donor fee”.
Ekweremadu and Obeta admitted falsely claiming the man was Sonia’s cousin in his visa application and in documents presented to the hospital.
Davies said Ekweremadu ignored medical advice to find a donor for his daughter among genuine family members. He said: “At no point in time was there ever any intention for a family member close, medium or distant to do what could be paid for from a pool of donors.”
The Ekweremadus’ daughter Sonia, 25, who was to receive a kidney from the trafficking victim, wept as she was cleared of the same charge on Thursday. But she tearfully hugged her father and mother as they were sent down from the dock.
The 21-year-old David Nwamini 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 victim then turned up at Staines Police Station on May 5, 2022 and burst into tears as he told officers that he had been trafficked from Nigeria into the UK and that someone was trying to take one of his organs.
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 Ekweremadu 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 Ekweremadu were remanded in custody along with Beatrice, who was previously on conditional bail throughout the trial.
Remanding Beatrice in custody, 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 in the UK 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.
Nwamini, a 21-year-old street trader in 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, Ike Ekweremadu, 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 naira a day selling phone accessories from a wheelbarrow.
He underwent tests in Abuja 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 Ekweremadu, jurors heard.
The court was shown messages in which Ekweremadu discussed with his brother the costs, including the donor fee of millions of naira, it was alleged.
Ekweremadu 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.
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 meet 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 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 N3.5 million, you felt you owed him nothing?”
The politician replied: “Never. It was a big scam.”
Beatrice Ekweremadu 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.