Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Terra Incognita

Tera Incognita: Bloody coexistence
11/23/2010 22:48

The bizarre horror and roots of the Kosovo organ-trafficking ring; almost all those involved were respected professionals in their communities.
In mid-November, the world media reported that Interpol was hunting for seven members of an organ-trafficking ring. They were accused of operating a clinic called Medicus in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Most news media were excited to reveal that two Israelis were among those named in the 46-page Interpol report. Less interest was shown in the other international members of the ring – Turkish and Albanian Muslims.

Only one Israeli, Moshe Harel, was wanted by Interpol in connection with the ring. The other Israeli, Zaki Shapira, was listed as an unindicted coconspirator. A Turkish doctor and five Albanians were also indicted for their role in diverse criminal activities such as “trafficking in persons and unlawful exercise of medical activity.”

THE ORIGINS of the ring appear relatively recent. According to reports, Lutfi Dervishi, a urologist and professor at Pristina University, visited Istanbul in 2006 to attend a conference. At the conference he let it be known that he was looking for someone who could perform organ transplants. He was contacted by Yusuf Sonmez, a Turkish national and surgeon who has a history of involvement with illegal organ harvesting.

Sonmez maintains a website which claims he completed his residency in surgery at Istanbul University medical faculty in 1984 and was an expert in kidney transplants. According to a November 3 article in Hurriyet he also worked at the Ministry of Health. He completed his first transplant from a live donor in 1993, and by 2006 claimed he had performed more than,1,300 kidney transplants. In 2005 he was running a private hospital in Istanbul. Turkish websites indicate that his hospital was shut down in 2007 after a police raid, during which his brother Bulent was also detained. He received a suspended sentence.

Sonmez again fell out with the law over organ thefts in 2008. His medical license was revoked and he was banned from the profession for six months – which news outlets criticized as too weak a punishment. At the time Turkish articles called him the “the Turkish butcher” and Hurriyet referred to him as “Frankenstein.” In 2010, when it emerged that he was involved with organ trafficking in Kosovo, he turned up inAzerbaijan, apparently free to go about his bloody business. His status at present is not clear.

In 2006, while at the height of his power, operating his own clinic prior to the police raids, he contacted Dervishi. Sonmez then contacted a Turkish-Israeli, Harel, who according to the government of Kosovo was born in 1950 in Turkey. Harel later allegedly “identified, recruited and transported the victims, as well as managed the cash payments before the surgeries.” Sonmez, it seems, was also the contact for Shapira, who has a history of brushes with the law regarding organ harvesting.

Shapira was once head of kidney transplant services at Beilinson Medical Center in Petah Tikva. He was also a member of the Bellagio Task Force on global transport ethics. In the 1990s he ran afoul of ethics charges in Israel and moved to Turkey. In 2007 Shapira was arrested in Turkey; it seems he was already connected with Sonmez’s hospital. Now Sonmez brought Harel and Shapira to Pristina to help run Dervishi’s clinic. The clinic was operated by Dervishi’s son, Arban. Illir Rrecaj, a Kosovo Health Ministry official, granted the clinic a license to do urological checkups but was, according to Interpol, privy to the actual goings on there.

In October 2008 police suspicions were raised when a poor man was dumped at the Pristina airport and it was found his kidney had been removed. A raid on the Medicus clinic discovered that the organ harvesting ring had been bringing in poverty stricken patients from countries such as Turkey and Russia, promising them 15,000 euros, and then selling their organs for upward of 100,000 euros. Rrecaj was dismissed from his post. On November 4, Harel was arrested.

BUT ACCORDING to other sources it appears the tentacles of the case go deeper.

The Serbian newspaper Blic claims that Dervishi was also involved in the murder and harvesting of organs from Serbs who were captured by ethnic Albanian terrorists during the Kosovo war of 1999. After the war there were rumors that Kosovar Albanians were keeping Serb prisoners in camps near the Kosovo border with Albania.

A Spanish KFOR contingent attempted to penetrate the village of Vrelo but was called back. Carla Del Ponte, the former chief prosecutor of the UN for war crimes committed in Yugoslavia, claimed in her 2008 book that as many as 300 Serbs were murdered for their organs just across the border in the Albanian town of Burrel. The infamous “clinic” in Burrel became known as the “yellow house,” but not until 2004 was it visited by a UN team to investigate the accusations. By then, only a few traces of blood remained.

According to Blic, in 1998 during the Kosovo crises, “[a] witness told Serbian war crimes prosecutors that he saw Dr. Lutfi Dervishi at locations where it was suspected that organs had been extracted from civilian prisoners and sold later.” Another Serbian source alleges that Shapira was also involved in 1999 in instructing those who harvested the organs, and according to the Croatian magazine Politika, he showed up in Macedonia in the same year, connected to a similar operation.

This claim is based on the fact that he had Turkish connections who were supporting the Kosovars during the war.

Whatever the case, it seems the recent organ-trafficking scandal is merely the latest emergence of the dark cloud that has hung over Kosovo for years; it has become a center for human and organ trafficking in Europe.

What makes the present case so shocking is that almost all those involved were respected professionals in their communities.A professor from Pristina, a member of the Kosovo Health Ministry, an Istanbul doctor and pioneer in organ transplants and a former head of transplant services at Beilinson. What made these men turn evil? What sort of strange dark coexistence is this, where Turks and Israelis work together to steal organs?

Does their ring have its origins in the dirty war fought in Kosovo in 1998-1999? The anti-Israel and anti-Semitic media like to shed light on supposed Israeli involvement in organ trafficking, but what this case shows is that the networks behind the story have much deeper and more disturbing roots.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Enigma of Tariq Aziz

Terra Incognita: The enigma of Iraq’s Tariq Aziz
11/16/2010 23:10

Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister, charged with several crimes, may soon find himself at the end of a rope.

When Tariq Aziz is hung, and most likely he will be, he won’t be the first foreign minister to have been executed for taking part in the government of a lethal regime. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s minister of foreign affairs during World War II, was executed after being found guilty at the Nuremburg trials. He also feigned innocence, claiming that he was not responsible for the crimes or even the warpath that his country embarked on from 1939.

Aziz, the indomitable foreign minister of Iraq from 1983 to 1991 and deputy prime minister from 1979 to 2003, has been sounding a familiar tune. In a long ranging, and rare, interview with The Guardian in August, he complained that the US was “leaving Iraq to the wolves” and claimed he did not commit any crimes against civilians.

The Iraqi High Tribunal, the court that has sentenced numerous former regime members, disagrees. He has been convicted of a role in the deaths of 42 merchants executed in 1992, planning the displacement of Kurds and persecuting Islamic political parties.

Aziz hasn’t been swiftly executed, as was the case with Saddam Hussein, and demands for clemency have poured in. The Vatican, the EU, the UN and the Greek and Russian governments have all expressed their displeasure over his death sentence. As a Christian, he has received support from Iraq’s bishops. The Chaldean patriarchal vicar, Shlemon Waduni, and the Latin archbishop, Jean Sleiman, have both expressed opposition to the death penalty. Some others have gone further. Muriel Mirak-Weissbach, a radical leftist journalist who has covered Armenia and the Palestinians, wrote in September in Dissident Voice that “Tariq Aziz should be released.”

THE ENIGMA of Aziz is a story that captures both the past and the present of Iraq and the Middle East. He was born Mikhail Yuhanna in 1936 near Bakhdida, a major Assyrian Christian town in northern Iraq. Educated in Baghdad, like many Arab Christians of his generation he became interested in Arab nationalism and socialism. His life mirrored other Christian Arab nationalist leaders who became influential diplomats, such as Boutros Boutros-Ghali (born 1922) of Egypt and the Palestinian Afif Safieh (born 1950). Aziz became the editor of the Ba’ath Party newspaper Al Thawra.

In a declassified interview with the FBI’s George Piro in 2004, Saddam Hussein remembered that in those early days of the party no one distinguished between Christians, Shi’ites, Kurds and Sunnis. Saddam claimed “it was only later that [I] learned that one of the party’s leaders, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian.”

Aziz was seen as a formidable member of the party and became very close to Saddam. In April 1980 members of the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa party attempted to assassinate this Christian consigliore. This was against the backdrop of increasing border tensions between Iran and Iraq. At the time the Dawa party’s headquarters had been relocated to Teheran, whose radical Shi’ite fundamentalist leaders were using it as a tool to topple the Arab socialist regime in Iraq. Saddam’s reaction was calculated. He waited five months and then launched a surprise attack on the mullahs. His model for the attack: Israel’s lightning victory of 1967.

One story that emerged from the FBI interviews with Saddam was that Mahmoud Abbas was present in Iraq at some point and that he “requested money, training, weapons and transportation to carry out missions to attack Israel.” What role Aziz played is not clear and will likely go with him to the gallows.

In the 1980s Aziz was the point man for Iraq’s relations with the West. Donald Rumsfeld, later to be George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, came to Baghdad in 1983 and met with Aziz and Saddam. He agreed that the “U.S and Iraq... [share] many common interests.” In 1984 assistant secretary of state Richard Murphy met with Aziz and discussed possible arms shipments. At this time Aziz was described as a cigar-chomping dandy who sported a military uniform, despite not being a soldier, and wore a pearl handled revolved. He was at the infamous July 25, 1990 meeting with US ambassador April Glaspie at which the Iraqis believed they received a “green light” to invade Kuwait.

The Kuwait crises, which was a strange result of the Iran-Iraq War, brought Aziz into the international limelight. He was tasked with heading off war and met with secretary of state James Baker in Geneva in January, 1991. In the seven-hour meeting he mentioned that the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait should be tied to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US and its allies would have none of it and on January 17 the bombing of Iraq began.

The cigars now discarded, Aziz took on a harried look in the years that followed. His son was arrested for corruption in 2000 and sentenced to prison, although he was subsequently released. Nevertheless he faithfully served his friend Saddam through 2003 when he was tasked with getting the Vatican to intervene on Iraq’s behalf and prevent the US invasion. His Catholic upbringing was often touted during these meetings. But to no avail. On March 20 US troops crossed the sand berms that separate Kuwait from Iraq.

On April 24, 14 days after Baghdad fell, Aziz emerged from hiding and surrendered. He now complains that he wished he had been martyred. At the time he had more pressing concerns. He told The Guardian’s Martin Chulov, “I told the Americans that if they took my family to Amman, they could take me to prison. My family left on an American plane. And I went to prison on a Thursday.”

SO HE has sat in prison for more than seven years, growing gaunt, frail and now looking every bit his 74 years. Ayad Allawi, a Shi’ite former Ba’athist and now head of the Iraqiya bloc of political parties that won a plurality of the vote in 2010 parliamentary elections, has said that Aziz is his friend. It is no surprise. Nuri al-Malaki’s party, the second largest in Iraq, is a religious and ideological descendant of the same Iranian backed Dawa terrorists who tried to assassinate Aziz in 1980. Aziz’s hometown votes heavily for Allawi. So things come full circle.

But was Aziz’s “Christianity” just a shill? Chulov found him wearing a Muslim prayer cap in his recent interview. Did he work to improve the lives of Christian Iraqis under Saddam? It seems that in that period the Christians at least had greater security. Since the US invasion and the terrorist-sectarian chaos that followed, the Christian population has declined almost by half from 1.1 million to 600,000 or less. Their priests have been beheaded and their churches bombed. They have been thrown to the wolves. And their last representative, a member of that uniquely 20th century class, the Christian Arab nationalist, may soon find himself at the end of a rope. He remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma.