Police on Monday arrested the head of a charity that facilitates voluntary organ donations in Israel, and three of its employees, on suspicion that it illegally traded organs for donations.
The arrests took place alongside raids on the suspects’ homes and the organization’s head offices in Jerusalem, according to a police statement.
The suspicions include managing the waiting list so as to bump potential recipients to the top in exchange for donations to the organization, and paying compensation to potential organ donors, police said.
Israel, like other countries, has organ donation laws designed to prevent trafficking. It prohibits compensation or the promise of compensation to donors by potential recipients or persons acting on their behalf.
“We have come to the conclusion that those without means are forced to remain on the waiting list and end up paying with their lives,” a police spokesperson said.
The organization is said to have encouraged relatives of those in need of transplants to make donations to the organization in order to shorten the waiting time to receive organs.
Police noted that they are not treating individual donors or organ recipients as suspects. “If anything, they are victims who themselves have been working to save lives,” the statement said.
Police said the investigation begun a number of months ago after a complaint was received against the organization from the Health Ministry. Evidence has since been collected from organ recipients, their families and other sources.
A police spokesperson explained that the investigation was “particularly complex and sensitive” and officers have made an effort not to interrupt the continuing work of the organization “in order to allow its life saving services to continue regardless of the ongoing probe.”
The identities of those arrested were prevented from being published due to a gag order which will remain in place until their remand hearing on Tuesday afternoon.
In March, the Jerusalem District Court lifted a gag order on an investigation into the Matnat Chaim (Gift of Life in Hebrew) charity, which facilitates voluntary kidney donations in Israel.
Over 400 healthy people have donated a kidney through Matnat Chaim. But the organization has been criticized by Israeli health officials for allowing donors to set conditions over who receives their kidney.
Donors who donate their kidney through Matnat Chaim are allowed to give their organs to a recipient of their choosing or to an unspecified recipient, provided that “there is a medically suitable recipient for the donated organ” as determined by the Transplant Center, also known as Adi in Israel.
The Health Ministry has said the policy leads to possible discrimination, noting that at least half of Matnat Chaim’s donors request Jewish recipients.
A health official told Channel 2 news in March that the organization has no oversight and that it was “not clear by which parameters the organization decides who receives a kidney,” as Matnat Chaim keeps its own list.
The official said that these circumstances lead to patients who are in relatively good condition and who are on Matnat Chaim’s list to be matched with donors, while patients in worse condition “who have been waiting and have been undergoing dialysis for four years” remain on the waiting list.
Responding to Tuesday’s arrests, a representative for Matnat Chaim told The Times of Israel that the organization is “certain that there was no wrongdoing and we are sure that the police investigation will bring out the truth.”
In the past, the organization has said that it had never agreed to accept donations in exchange for promoting a patient in the waiting list. It said that “it completely rejects any suggestion of any hint of wrongdoing.”
Stéphanie Bitan contributed to this report.