A wealthy Nigerian couple plotted to bring a poor street trader to the UK to harvest his kidney for their daughter in exchange for up to £7,000 and the promise of a better life, a court has heard.
Ike and Beatrice Ekweremadu, their 25-year-old daughter Sonia and medical “middleman” Dr Obinna Obeta allegedly conspired to exploit the 21-year-old man for his body part.
It is claimed Sonia Ekweremadu was to have been the recipient of his kidney in a transplant operation at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London.
As part of the alleged plot, “elaborate” steps were taken to create the false impression that Sonia and her proposed donor were cousins, it is claimed.
Opening their Old Bailey trial on Monday, Hugh Davies KC said Ike, 60, a senior senator in the Nigerian Parliament, and his 56-year-old wife were “significant figures” in Nigerian society.
“His status and influence had produced a significant degree of wealth. They had international connections,” the prosecutor said.
“There are, however, certain things that money and status cannot guarantee in any family and they include good health.”
Sonia had a “significant and deteriorating” kidney condition which could be managed through dialysis but cured with a transplant, the court heard.
Mr Davies told jurors: “Most parents, whether powerful or not in society, will do whatever is necessary to alleviate suffering in their child.
“The Ekweremadus were no different: the evidence – from downloads from their mobile phones, and wider actions – demonstrates a close, open and loving family each with an understandable and direct interest in Sonia’s medical treatment.”
Mr Davies told jurors the case was not about their motivation but what the defendants were prepared to do to cure Sonia’s kidney condition.
While it is lawful for someone to donate a kidney, it is criminal to reward someone for doing so, jurors heard.
The donor, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was allegedly recruited in Lagos, Nigeria.
At the time he was making a few pounds a day selling telephone parts from a cart in public markets, the court heard.
Mr Davies said other potential donors in Nigeria had been reviewed for suitability before he was identified.
And when the organ transplant did not go ahead in London, steps were taken to arrange a transplant operation in Turkey with a different donor, it was claimed.
When the street trader was found to be a suitable match, he was transported to London in February 2022 under the “direction and financial control” of the alleged plotters, Mr Davies said.
As part of the deception, the young man was purported to be Sonia’s cousin, with the family connection used to get a temporary visa to travel to the UK, the court was told.
He was coached to give false answers to doctors at the Royal Free Hospital and Sonia was “singing from the same hymn sheet” to create a fake family history, Mr Davies said.
Under the agreement, the young man was to be paid either £2,400 or £7,000 in Nigerian Naira plus the promise of work and the opportunity to be in the United Kingdom, the prosecution alleged.
Mr Davies told jurors: “Relative to the wider medical costs of the process – measured in tens of thousands of pounds – which would have been done privately, his reward was to be a small fraction of the whole.
“To him – a street trader from Lagos – these sums and rewards were significant.”
Jurors were told the alleged donor did not understand until his first appointment with a consultant at the Royal Free Hospital that he was there for a kidney transplant.
He was said by the consultant to have “limited understanding” of what he was there for and was “visibly relieved” on being told the transplant would not go ahead, the court heard.
Mr Davies said: “More widely, the prosecution contends that (the donor) was subject to a high degree of control throughout and was dependent on what he was told for his understanding.
The jury was told Sonia Ekweremadu has not had a kidney transplant and remains on dialysis.
The three Ekweremadus, from Willesden Green, north-west London, and Obeta, 50, from Southwark, deny conspiring to arrange or facilitate the travel of the young man with a view to exploitation between August 1 2021 and May 5 2022.
The court heard how Dr Obeta was a former classmate of Sonia’s uncle Isaac “Diwe” Ekweremadu, who is alleged to have taken part in the conspiracy but is not on trial as he is in Nigeria.
In 2021, Dr Obeta had himself undergone a kidney transplant in the UK, with the donor travelling from Nigeria and said in a sworn affidavit to be his cousin, jurors were told.
Dr Obeta had distributed a GoFundMe page quoting £60,000 for the private procedure, some £20,000 less than the cost of Sonia’s transplant had it gone ahead, it was alleged.
On September 8 2021, Diwe Ekweremadu allegedly messaged Ike – then the deputy president of the Nigerian senate – that he would brief him following “extensive discussions” with his “classmate who had his transplant last month”.
He goes on to say the classmate would need some £2,000 to start the search for candidates and testing.
The following month, messages between Diwe Ekweremadu and Dr Obeta – forwarded to Ike – revealed that potential donors would travel for screening at a lab in the capital city, Abuja.
The 21-year-old donor was among them, having been recruited by an acquaintance at the Lagos street market who turned out to be Dr Obeta’s kidney donor, the court was told.
Mr Davies said that the young man’s account was that he believed he was being taken to London to work and the tests were for a visa.
The prosecutor said Dr Obeta was controlling the process in Nigeria and regularly updating Diwe Ekweremadu, who was, in turn, updating his family.
Mr Davies told jurors that messages referred to the nameless donor only as “this guy” and made no mention of any act of “extraordinary selfless altruism”.
He added: “In the real world altruistic donors are an exceptionally rare commodity: those willing to provide organs for reward are not. They are often young, intrinsically economically disadvantaged, young men.”