MADRID: Police in Spain arrested a rich Lebanese man suspected of trying to buy the healthy liver of a poor immigrant to receive it as a transplant, officials said Wednesday.
They said it was the first such organ trafficking racket uncovered in Spain, which is a pioneer in advanced transplants and performs more such operations than any other country in the world.
The 61-year-old, who was reported in Spanish media to be a Lebanese mayor, is suspected of approaching several immigrants, offering 40,000 euros ($55,000) for a liver, and finally making a deal with a Romanian.
Medics at a hospital in Barcelona suspected when they met the pair that there was not a close relationship between them -- one of the legal conditions for such transplants in order to avoid trafficking.
"It was clear that there was an attempt to buy and sell a liver, and it was not carried out," the director of the national police, Ignacio Cosido, told a news conference.
Police were already investigating the case after an Algerian woman in the eastern city of Valencia told an immigrant support group in June that she had been offered 40,000 euros for her liver.
Five people were arrested and accused of organ trafficking, including three of the Lebanese man's relatives and a Palestinian, all residents in Spain, said police inspector Esther Maldonado.
They were all released on bail pending judicial action and some had to hand over their passports.
Police would not name the so-called mayor or his town but described him in a statement as "wealthy", while the immigrants he approached were "without resources".
The man was suffering from liver failure and "needed a transplant which is practically unavailable in his country", Cosido said.
The patient ended up receiving the liver part he needed from his own son, in Barcelona in August.
He had at first been wrongly told that his son was too young to donate.
The suspects were arrested in January but police said they kept the case quiet until Wednesday for legal reasons.
Spain carries out more organ transplants than any other country in the world, despite recent health spending cuts over recent years brought on by recession and a debt crisis.
Surgeons in Spain carried out a record total of 4,279 transplants in 2013, partly thanks to a high number of donors, the state National Transplant Organisation said in January.
Only three hospitals in Spain carry out liver transplants from live donors, in which between 20 and 30 livers have been transplanted from live patients in the past five years.
Police said they identified intermediaries who had sought out potential donors, nine of whom went to a clinic in Valencia to be examined with a view to donating a part of their liver to the patient.
Organ trafficking is "a growing danger, a scourge of the 21st century", the head of the National Transplant Organisation, Rafael Matesanz, told reporters.
"No country is totally immune from it.