The Italian Parliament and Chinese Organ Transplant Abuse
(Prepared for presentation to a Senate Human Rights Committee hearing and a Chamber of Deputies briefing session
at the Italian Parliament, 19 December, 2013, by David Matas)
I wrote a report with David Kilgour in June 2006 which concluded that prisoners of conscience in China, practitioners of the spiritually based set of exercises Falun Gong, were being killed for their organs which were being sold at high prices to transplant patients. We produced a second version in of our report in January 2007 and a third version in book form under the title Bloody Harvest in November 2009. Our report prompted the founding of a non-governmental organization Doctors against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH). I and Dr. Torsten Trey, the founder of DAFOH, co-edited a book of essays on organ transplant abuse in China published in August 2012 under the name State Organs.
While it would take far too long to go through all the evidence which led me, David Kilgour and other researchers to the conclusion that Falun Gong are being killed for their organs, I will mention a few bits.
• Investigators made calls to hospitals throughout China, claiming to be relatives of patients needing transplants, asking if the hospitals had organs of Falun Gong for sale on the basis that, since Falun Gong through their exercises are healthy, the organs would be healthy. We obtained on tape, transcribed and translated admissions throughout China.
• Falun Gong practitioners and non-Falun Gong alike who were detained and who then got out of detention and out of China told that
1) Falun Gong were systematically blood tested and organ examined while in detention. Other detainees were not. The blood testing and organ examination could not have been for the health of the Falun Gong since they had been tortured; but it would have been necessary for organ transplants.
2) Falun Gong practitioners who came from all over the country to Tiananmen Square in Beijing to appeal or protest were systematically arrested. Those who revealed their identities to their captors would be shipped back to their home localities. Their immediate environment would be implicated in their Falun Gong activities and penalized.
To avoid harm to people in their locality, many detained Falun Gong declined to identify themselves. The result was a large Falun Gong prison population whose identities the authorities did not know. As well, no one who knew them knew where they were. This population is a remarkably undefended group of people, even by Chinese standards. This population provided a ready source for harvested organs.
3) The Party has engaged in a prolonged, persistent, vitriolic national and international campaign of incitement to hatred against Falun Gong. The campaign has prompted their marginalization, depersonalization and dehumanization in the eyes of many Chinese nationals. To their jailors, Falun Gong are not human beings entitled to respect for their human rights and dignity.
• Patients we interviewed who went to China for transplants told that
1) Waiting times for transplants of organs in China are days and weeks. Everywhere else in the world waiting times are months and years. A short waiting time for a deceased donor transplant means that someone is being killed for that transplant.
2) There is a heavy militarization of transplantation in China. Hospitals with a ready supply of available organs are often military hospitals. Even in civilian hospitals, the doctors performing operations are often military personnel. The military have a common culture with prison guards and readier access to prisoners as organ sources than civilian hospitals and civilian personnel do.
In China, the military is a conglomerate business and the sale of organs is a prime source of funds. Military hospital web sites used to boast this fact before we started quoting them. Though they have since taken down the boasts, we archived this information so that independent researchers can still see them.
3) There is an inordinate secrecy surrounding transplantation in China. The names of doctors are not identified. Patients are not allowed to bring their own doctors with them. Before our 2006 report came out, Chinese doctors used to provide letters to patients indicating the treatment given and counselled. The letters ceased after the publication of our report.
• There is no other explanation for the transplant numbers than sourcing from Falun Gong. China is the second largest transplant country in the world by volume after the US. Yet, until 2010 China did not have a deceased donation system and even today that system produces donations which are relatively small. Until this year, China did not have an organ distribution system. The organ distribution in place today is limited to the relatively small donated organs, and does not distribute organs from prisoners. The living donor sources are limited in law to relatives of donors and officially discouraged because live donors suffer health complications from giving up an organ.
The Government of China at first took the position that all organs came from donations, even though at the time they did not have a donation system. They then acknowledged that the overwhelming proportion of organs for transplants in China came from prisoners but asserted that the prisoners who are the sources of organs are all sentenced to death. Falun Gong practitioners have been given short sentences for disrupting social order or sentenced to nothing.
Yet, the number of prisoners sentenced to death and then executed that would be necessary to supply the volume of transplants in China is far greater than even the most exaggerated death penalty statistics and estimates. Moreover, in recent years, death penalty volumes have gone down, but transplant volumes, except for a short blip in 2007, remained constant.
• The standards and mechanisms which should be in place to prevent the abuse are not in place, neither in China nor abroad. International organ transplant abuse should be treated like international child sex tourism, an offence everywhere with extraterritorial effect. However, so far that is not the case.
On the one hand, we have organ transplant abuse which is possible without legal consequences. On the other hand, we have huge money to be made from this abuse, as well as desperate patients in need of transplants. This combination is a recipe for victimization of the vulnerable. Standards and mechanisms to prevent the abuse need to be introduced.
Going through all relevant evidence to come to an informed conclusion either one way or the other on the killing of Falun Gong for their organs is a time consuming task, and it may be unrealistic to expect everyone interested in the issue to do that. I do not expect Italian parliamentarians to replicate our research, though I would be pleased if you had the time and inclination to do so. Nor do I expect you to trust our conclusions. But that does not mean that you should do nothing.
The onus does not fall on me to show that Falun Gong are being killed for their organs. I do not have to explain where China gets its organs for transplants. China does. It falls on the Government of China to explain the sourcing for their organs.
The World Health Organization, in an Assembly in May 2010 endorsed Guiding Principles on Human Cell, Tissue and Organ Transplantation. Two of these principles are traceability and transparency.
For the research I and others have done, we were able to garner useful information about transplant volumes from the China Liver Transplant Registry in Hong Kong. After our research was published, the China Liver Transplant Registry shut down public access to statistical aggregate data on its site. Access is available only to those who have a Registry issued login name and password.
The Chinese health system runs four transplant registries, one each for liver, kidney, heart and lung. The other three are located in mainland China, kidney and heart in Beijing and lung in Wuxi. The data on the other three sites are also accessible only to those who have registry issued login names and passwords.
The Government of China refuses to provide death penalty statistics on the basis that they are state secrets. At the United Nations Universal Periodic Review Working Group in February 2009 Canada, Switzerland, United Kingdom, France, Austria, Italy recommended that China publish death penalty statistics. The Government of China said no to this recommendation. The same recommendation was repeated by Belgium, France, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, UK, and Italy at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review Working Group in October 2013. This time China said, we’ll see.
The connection between death penalty statistics and organ transplant abuse was made explicit by the UN rapporteur on torture, the UN rapporteur on religious intolerance and the UN Committee on Torture. All have asked China to explain the discrepancy between its volume of transplants and its volume of sources.
The UN Committee against Torture in its November 2008 concluding observations of the state report of China wrote that China should: “immediately conduct or commission an independent investigation of the claims that some Falun Gong practitioners have been subjected to torture and used for organ transplants and take measures, as appropriate, to ensure that those responsible for such abuses are prosecuted and punished.”
Where does this leave the Parliament of Italy? I suggest two initiatives.
One is legislation to penalize those who participate in organ transplant abuse, not just brokers, but as well medical personnel and patients. The law should assert universal jurisdiction, so that presence alone in Italy would be sufficient to justify prosecution. The law should ban entry to those who have participated in organ transplant abuse. As well, the law should impose compulsory reporting of transplant tourism. I note that Senator Maurizio Romani has proposed a bill to increase penalties for transplant tourism brokerage, in my view, a useful first step.
Two countries – Spain and Israel – have already passed exemplary legislation in this field. In other countries – Australia, Belgium, France and Canada – legislators have introduced into their parliaments useful proposed laws. The efforts in these various countries can provide drafting guidance to Italian parliamentarians.
The Bioethics Council of the Government of Italy produced a study in May 2013 titled Illegal Traffic of Organs which addressed the need for legislation to combat transplant tourism. The Council observed that “The general sense is that there has not yet been adopted, either at national or international levels, effective tools to prevent, reduce and combat” illicit trafficking in human organs for the purpose of transplantation. The study recommended that legislation in every country provide sanctions of a criminal nature for transplant tourism and the promotion of a specific international agreement against transplant tourism. The authors of the study wrote:
“Like other European countries, Italy, although it has various regulations case related to organ transplantation, has a limited system of sanctions for the illegal trafficking of organs. The two main regulations (Law 26061967, n 458 on the kidney transplant between people living and L 04/01/1999, n 91 on the removal of organs and tissues from cadavers) provide sanctions only against those whose activities are brokerage and health care workers who use bodies for profit, but no penalty is provided in respect of other parties directly or indirectly involved in illegal traffic.”
The conclusion reached by the Bioethics Council was that, although the idea of regulation is difficult to achieve in many parts of the world, at least Europe could provide for an international and national legal regulation, with the introduction of criminal offenses which would define the trafficking of organs, work to prevent it, and reinforce the principle that the human body or its parts are not to be traded.
D. A resolution
Second, the Parliament of Italy should pass a resolution similar to the European Parliament resolution of December 11, 2013 on organ harvesting in China. Many Italian members of the Parliament voted in favour.
The resolution says in part that the European Parliament:
“2. …. calls on the Government of the People’s Republic of China to end immediately the practice of harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience and members of religious and ethnic minority groups;
3. Calls for the EU and its Member States to raise the issue of organ harvesting in China; recommends that the Union and its Member States publicly condemn organ transplant abuses in China and raise awareness of this issue among their citizens travelling to China; calls for a full and transparent investigation by the EU into organ transplant practices in China, and for the prosecution of those found to have engaged in such unethical practices;
4. Calls on the Chinese authorities to respond thoroughly to the requests of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief asking the Chinese Government to explain the sources of extra organs following the increase in the number of organ transplant operations, and to allow them to conduct an investigation into organ transplant practices in China;
5. Calls for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience in China, including Falun Gong practitioners;”
Last week in Geneva I was part of a delegation which presented to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights a petition initiated by DAFOH with 1.5 million signatures asking the High Commissioner to:
1. call upon Government of China to end immediately the forced organ harvesting from Falun Gong prisoners,
2. initiate an investigation which can lead to the prosecution of the perpetrators of this crime against humanity, and
3. call upon the Government of China government to end immediately the brutal persecution of Falun Gong.
Many of the signatories of the petition were Italian.
For the Italian parliament to endorse the resolution already passed by the European Parliament or the petition presented to Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is far from superfluous. The Italian Bioethics Council hoped that European countries would work together at the international level to cooperate in carrying out investigations on the breaches committed inside and outside European territory. The more parliaments and governments call for an independent investigation into the sourcing of organs for transplant in China, an end to organ transplant abuse in China and an immediate cessation of persecution of Falun Gong, the more likely it is that these will happen.
E. The political context
At first blush, it may seem unlikely that the Government of China would cooperate with an independent investigation which might end up concluding that the senior leadership of the Communist Party has been guilty of crimes against humanity. However, one has to take into account the current political context.
At the heart of the Communist Party of China is a power struggle between various factions. Those who led the persecution of Falun Gong are gone or going.
On February 2nd 2012, Wang Lijun, the deputy mayor and police chief in Chongqing, was demoted. Four days later he visited the American consulate in Chengdu for a full day. When he left, the Chinese security police arrested him. On March 15, Bo Xilai lost his position as Communist Party General Secretary of Chongqing. On April 10th, he was suspended from the Politburo.
Wang Lijun was convicted and in September 2012 sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Bo Xilai was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment upheld on appeal in October of this year.
There was a live debate in the Party, after the Wang Lijun defection, whether to prosecute Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai for the killing of Falun Gong for their organs. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, at a closed Communist Party meeting in Zhongnanhai on March 14, is reported to have said:
“Without anaesthetic, the live harvesting of human organs and selling them for money. Is this something that a human could do? Things like this have happened for many years. We are about to retire, but it is still not resolved. Now that the Wang Lijun incident is known by the entire world, use this to punish Bo Xilai. Resolving the Falun Gong issue should be a natural choice.”
In the end, the prosecutions of Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai were directed into a side stream, the murder of a foreigner, Neil Heywood. Being upfront about the killing of Falun Gong for their organs was too hot a potato for the Communist Party to handle.
Nonetheless, the marginalization of the leadership of the persecution of the Falun Gong continues. The head of the legal and political affairs committee before November 2012 was Zhou Yongkang. From 2002 to 2007 Zhou Yongkang was Minister of Public Security. Zhou Yongkang, as of this month, has been put under house arrest and become the subject of investigation.
The Communist Party of China announced this week that Li Dongsheng has been placed under investigation. Li is the second in command of the bureaucracy charged with repression of Falun Gong, informally called the 610 office, after the date of its creation, June 10, 1999.
Persecution of Falun Gong and organ transplant abuse are central to the power struggle in China. One side seeks impunity. The other uses violations to discredit their opponents.
A power struggle is always more than just that. There are competing values at stake. One side is afraid and jealous of a popular, moral, spiritual belief system. The other side appreciates the link of Falun Gong to ancient Chinese traditions and values its morality.
Italy in this Chinese debate should not be a silent bystander. While internal power struggles are normally matters only of internal concern, the persecution of Falun Gong and organ transplant abuse concern all humanity. They are crimes against humanity; crimes against Italians. Italians should take advantage of the opportunity this power struggle offers to support the side advocating an end to the persecution of Falun Gong and an end to organ transplant abuse. In the current Chinese power struggle, Italy has an interest, for democracy, freedom and human rights, which it must pursue.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada