Bulgarian organized-crime police probing 14 illegal kidney transplants

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SOFIA, June 24 (Reuters) - Bulgarian organized-crime investigators are probing 14 cases of foreign nationals receiving kidney transplants in violation of law stipulating that donors must be family members, the interior minister said on Thursday.

"Initial data points to gross breaches of the law and good medical practice," interim Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov told reporters. "The culpable persons need to be identified and brought to prosecution and trial."

Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest member state, has been criticised for years by Brussels for failing to efficiently combat organized crime and uproot endemic corruption.

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The investigation was launched after Health Minister Stoicho Katsarov said there were reasons to believe that at least for some of the transplants carried between 2019 and April 2021 at Lozenetz Hospital in Sofia, recipients used false identities and documents to prove their relation with the donors.

In all 14 cases, young people from Moldova and Ukraine were presented as relatives of kidney recipients from Israel, Germany and Oman among other countries, Katsarov said. Under Bulgarian law, an organ transplant from a living donor is only allowed if there is a family connection.

Katsarov said checks into the identities of some of the recipients with the relevant embassies showed they were not genuine, and this had been known since late 2020, but nothing was done until the new interim government took office in May.

The checks were carried after an Interpol notice in early 2020 about new global organized crime activity involving organ trafficking through fraudulent documentation and false declarations of family connections.

The state-owned Lozenetz hospital has denied any wrongdoing, saying it followed protocol and agreed to carry out the operations after receiving necessary documents and after alerting the security services.

However, a former marketing director of the hospital, Michel Levi, told Reuters he knew of at least four operations where family connections were falsified in documentation and he had approached the hospital director about it several times.

Katsarov had fired the hospital director over the operations as well as other shortcomings earlier this month. The former director could be reached for comment.

The interior ministry spokesperson declined to give details of the investigation but said that it would take in the hospital officials, recipients, donors as well as intermediaries who arranged the operations.

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Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova Editing by Mark Heinrich

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