PRISTINA -- EU prosecutors have launched a probe into eight suspects in connection with an international organ-trafficking ring that performed at least 23 illegal kidney transplants at a clinic in Pristina.
Prosecutors with EULEX, the European Union's rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, said on April 30 that the charges included organized crime, human trafficking, grievous bodily harm, abuse of office, and fraud.
The announcement comes one day after a court in Kosovo convicted five doctors of involvement in the scheme.
Urologist Lutfi Dervishi, the director of the private Medicus clinic were the operations were conducted, was sentenced to eight years in prison.
His son Arban Dervishi was jailed for seven years and three months.
An anesthetist received a three-year sentence, and two other defendants got one-year suspended sentences.
Two more were acquitted, including former Kosovo Health Minister Ilir Rrecaj.
Warrants were also issued for Yusuf Ercin Sonmez, a Turkish doctor suspected of carrying out the surgeries, and the alleged ringleader, Moshe Harel, an Israeli citizen.
Donors from a number of countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Turkey, told investigators they were lured on promises of up to $15,000 for their kidneys.
Many said they were never given the money.
The recipients, mostly wealthy patients from Israel, Canada, the United States, Germany, and Poland, paid up to $130,000 for the transplants.
The scandal came to light in late 2008 when a Turkish man collapsed at Pristina airport after having his kidney removed.
"The sole and driving motive for this exploitation of the poor and the indigent was an opportunity for obscene profit and human greed. In every sense, this was the cruel harvest of the poor," Canada's Jonathan Ratel, EULEX's special prosecutor in the case, said shortly after the verdicts.
Under Kosovo's legislation, organ transplantation is illegal at private clinics. It is rare in the nation's cash-strapped public health facilities.
All the defendants have nonetheless denied wrongdoing, saying that the donors came to Kosovo voluntarily and that the surgeries saved lives.
They are entitled to appeal the verdict.
Some have linked the case to allegations that the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army harvested and sold organs from captives, including Serbs, during the 1998-99 war.
Dick Marty, a Council of Europe rapporteur, authored a 2011 report in which he cited evidence that the two cases were linked and involved high-ranking officials in Kosovo.
A special task force appointed by the European Union and led by U.S. prosecutor Clint Williamson is investigating Marty's allegations. It is due to publish a report in 2014.
The claims have angered Kosovo's political elite, which includes many former guerrillas who fought in the Balkan wars, including Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.
Thaci has dismissed the allegations as "nonsense."
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP