A wealthy mayor from Lebanon has been arrested in Spain for allegedly offering to pay $55,000 to poor people to obtain liver tissue for his liver transplant, police and a government official announced Wednesday.
It's the first time that potential human organ trafficking, a worrisome international crime, has been detected in Spain, authorities said.
The mayor, a 61-year-old man, was arrested on January 30 at Manises Airport in Valencia. He has since appeared before a judge, who filed preliminary charges for alleged organ trafficking and released him on condition that he surrender his passport and remain in Spain, police and the official said at a Madrid news conference.
Authorities, including Spain's director general of national police, would not name the mayor because of an ongoing court investigation. Nor would they release the names of his alleged accomplices -- three Lebanese and a Palestinian who also were arrested in Spain.
"The police have helped to fight one of the scars of the 21st century, which is organ trafficking," Rafael Matesanz, director of the government's National Transplants Organization, said at the news conference.
"It's the first case that we have detected in Spain, of some people who come from foreign countries and who try to get some poor people, some immigrants," to sell a piece of their liver for a transplant, Matesanz said.
The mayor's alleged accomplices recruited and later paid for nine poor people -- eight immigrants and a Spaniard -- to have specialized liver compatibility tests at a clinic in Valencia last summer, police say. The combined tests cost $16,000, which the mayor's aides allegedly paid. Some of the nine people also received small sums of money for taking part, police said.
Just one man, a Romanian immigrant, met the medical criteria for the liver tissue removal and, posing as a legitimate donor, he accompanied the Lebanese mayor last summer to a Barcelona clinic that specializes in liver transplants. But medical workers there, following strict protocols against human organ trafficking, prevented it.
Spain is considered a world leader in legal organ transplants, and under its rules, human donors must do so only for altruistic reasons and must be family members or close friends of the recipient. The hospital quickly discovered that the Romanian immigrant and the Lebanese mayor had no such relationship, authorities said.
The mayor eventually got his liver transplant in Barcelona, using tissue donated by his son, who had earlier been turned down as a donor in Lebanon, Spanish authorities said.
But in Valencia, police were already investigating a tip from a nongovernmental organization that works with immigrants, which reported that an Algerian woman had complained that people were offering her money for part of her liver.
The Algerian woman was among the nine people who eventually took the liver compatibility tests. Further investigation into the people who were recruiting and paying for those tests led police to the Lebanese mayor, and to the Lebanese suspects and the Palestinian, who live in Spain, authorities said.
The mayor's arrest occurred when he flew back to Spain for a medical checkup.
The suspects could face 12 years in prison if convicted, but the court's investigation is still preliminary, with no indictments, which are a necessary step before any trial can be held.
"The main message is that no country is totally free of this problem, so that everybody should be alert," Matesanz said. "Organ trafficking is more or less like slaves of some centuries ago. It's the way some people really control other people. It's exploitation of human beings."