A Nigerian politician and his wife were involved in a criminal conspiracy to bring a young Lagos street trader to the UK to donate his kidney to their daughter at an NHS hospital in London, the Old Bailey has heard.
On the opening day of their trial, Ike Ekweremadu, 60, a former deputy president of the Nigerian senate, his wife, Beatrice, 56, their daughter Sonia, 25, and a doctor, Obinna Obeta, 51, are accused of organ trafficking under the Modern Slavery Act.
The potential donor, believed to be about 21 and who cannot be named for legal reasons, was coached to pose as Sonia’s cousin and offered £7,000 and the promise of “work and opportunity” in the UK in return for the donation of his kidney, the court was told.
The alleged conspiracy partially unravelled when a doctor at London’s Royal Free hospital said the privately arranged £80,000 operation could not go ahead because the man had “limited understanding” of why he was there.
Hugh Davies KC, for the prosecution, said: “Throughout the process, elaborate steps were taken to create the wholly false impression” that the man was Sonia’s cousin. He said deception extended to obtaining a visa to the UK and “coaching him with false answers to give to the Royal Free hospital doctors”.
The court was told the pair were willing to corrupt a staff member at the hospital who spoke Igbo and offered to act as interpreter in a meeting between the potential donor and the hospital.
Davies told jurors: “Somewhat extraordinarily, according to messages between other people, she appears to have agreed to accept, in obvious breach of their professional role, £1,500 after this meeting in order to manipulate a meeting to the advantage of the family.”
The court heard that the Ekweremadus had “power and influence” in Nigerian society and a “significant degree of wealth”. Davies said: “There are, however, certain things that money and status cannot guarantee in any family, and they include good health.”
Sonia had a “significant and deteriorating” kidney condition that could be managed through dialysis but cured with a transplant, the court heard. Davies told jurors: “Most parents, whether powerful or not in society, will do whatever is necessary to alleviate suffering in their child.
The Ekweremadus were no different.”
He said the case was not about their “recognisable human” motive but the lengths to which they would go. He said: “While it is lawful in defined circumstances for someone to donate a kidney in terms of medical risk – these risks have to be explained and understood in each case of course – it is criminal to reward someone for donating a kidney.”
The jury heard how the man was making a few pounds a day selling telephone parts from a cart on the streets of Lagos before he came into contact with the Ekweremadus. To him, the sums offered by the family were “significant”, the jury heard.
When he was found to be a suitable match, he was transported to London in February 2022 under the “direction and financial control” of the alleged plotters, Davies said.
When the organ transplant did not go ahead in London, steps were taken to arrange a transplant operation in Turkey with a different donor, it was claimed.
The three Ekweremadus, of Willesden Green in north-west London, and Obeta, of Southwark, deny conspiring to arrange or facilitate the travel of the man with a view to exploitation between August 2021 and May 2022.
The court heard how Obeta was a former classmate of Ike Ekweremadu’s brother Diwe Ekweremadu, who is alleged to have taken part in the conspiracy but is not on trial as he is in Nigeria.
In 2021, Obeta had reportedly undergone a kidney transplant in the UK, with the donor travelling from Nigeria and said in a sworn affidavit to be his cousin, jurors were told. “What was done for the Ekweremadus was a repeat of the process he had successfully followed for himself,” the court heard.
In October 2021, messages between Diwe Ekweremadu and Obeta, forwarded to Ike, revealed arrangements for selecting potential donors. The Lagos street trader was reportedly among them, having been recruited by a friend who had donated his kidney to Obeta.
Davies said Obeta was controlling the process in Nigeria and regularly updating Diwe Ekweremadu, who in turn was updating his family.
According to phone messages obtained by police, on being told about this by Dr Obinna Obeta, allegedly the Ekweremadu’s fixer in Nigeria, he said: “Wow! Thank you very much sir, I really appreciate you”,
The court also heard Sonia Ekweremadu began calling the 21-year-old, to “get familiar” with him before he flew to London in February.
Davies told jurors that messages referred to the donor only as “this guy” and made no mention of any act of “extraordinary selfless altruism”.
He added: “In the real world, altruistic donors are an exceptionally rare commodity: those willing to provide organs for reward are not. They are often young, intrinsically economically disadvantaged men.”
He said that Mr Ekweremadu and his associates began a search for a donor among “economically vulnerable people” in Nigeria with the right blood and genome types.
Candidates were invited to the Nigerian capital Abuja for testing, the court heard.
The alleged victim was recruited by a previous organ donor he knew from the street market and plans were made to bring him to the UK, including obtaining a passport, jurors were told.
The potential donor for Sonia Ekweremadu believed he was undergoing medical tests as part of a visa application to go to London to work, the prosecution said.
Jurors heard he was granted a visa by the Home Office in London in January 2022.
On arrival the potential donor began meeting doctors at the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead, north London, Mr Davies said.
A specialist, Dr Peter Dupont who met the alleged trafficking victim, became concerned about the donation.
He believed the young man’s maturity, age and ethnicity put him at risk of long term complications should he donate a kidney, the jury heard.
They had to lied, tenuous relationship’
The man’s relationship with the recipient was “tenuous”, the doctor concluded.
Mr Davies said the defendants’ conspiracy involved “detailed lies” that there was a family relationship between Sonia Ekweremadu and the alleged victim.”
“A relatively distant family member acting altruistically is one thing. A complete stranger from Lagos coming from a position of economic disadvantage would have been seen for what it was, a donation for reward.”
“They had to lie, and did.”
The court was told the donor was bought clothes so that photos could be taken to create a false “backstory”.
He was given a “drip feed of money”.
“They had to control him and his documents right up to the point where the transplant took place. To protect their investment,” Mr Davies said.
“He was not picked because of his extraordinarily selfless altruism, he was picked because he was a physical and biological match.”
Mr Davies said whether the donor agreed to travel to the UK for that purpose didn’t matter because victims of trafficking couldn’t legally agree to their own exploitation.
The three Ekweremadus and Dr Obeta, from Southwark, deny conspiring to arrange or facilitate the travel of the young man with a view to exploitation between 1 August 2021 and 5 May 2022.
The trial, which is being heard by Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson, continues and is expected to last seven weeks.