For nearly a decade, the General Prosecutor’s Office (GPO) and the Center for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (CCTHB) have said that they have been tracing the Israeli doctor Michael Zis for trafficking in organs. He once worked in Edineţ and then emigrated and operated on tens of people in Turkey, Ukraine and Israel, extracting organs for transplants. At present the surgeon is in freedom in Israel and the Moldovan authorities are not even trying to have him extradited. On the other hand, the officers hunt for the Zis’ victims in Moldova and, for the most part, incriminate them as traffickers.

Identifying Victims

Starting with 2004, the Moldovan law-enforcement bodies discovered in the north of Moldova, more exactly in Edineţ and Ocniţa, a number of individuals who had sold a kidney for 10 thousand dollars. The people did it voluntarily because they needed money – show the statements from the subsequently filed criminal cases.

Convinced by the prosecutors and CCTHB officers, some of those who had sold their organ accepted to file complaints. As a consequence, in 2004, a number of criminal cases were filed for trafficking in organs. Although the victims had indicated at least 3 individuals as recruiters, only one came before the court – Marin Strungaru, a man who himself had sold his own kidney. According to the GPO, he was one of those 11 persons who had been operated on by the transplantologist Michael Zis.

Story of the “Black Transplantologist”

Description: http://www.investigatii.md/images/201108012.jpgBefore the breakup of the Soviet Union, Michael Zis lived for many years in Edineţ and worked as surgeon in the district hospital. His wife also worked there as gynecologist. Their family emigrated later to Israel. In 2007, Zis was arrested in Ukraine being accused of having illegally performed a number of transplant surgeries at a clinic in Doneţk, the victims being Ukrainian citizens. After a proceeding where he was set free and then again arrested, the Ukrainian authorities finally changed the charges from “trafficking in organs” to a less serious crime, “violation of the order of organ transplantation”. Thus, Zis was imposed a fine and then was amnestied on the grounds that he had to raise a juvenile child

Extradited to Israel

Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s offices of Moldova and Israel had announced him in international search and requested Ukraine to extradite the doctor. Thus, on 20 October 2009, Zis, who had been called “the black transplantologist” by the Ukrainian media, was ceded to Israel and on the following day was released and prosecuted in freedom. The doctor’s lawyer, quoted by the Ukrainian press, acknowledged that Zis had wanted to be extradited to Israel. Those who announced him in international search – GPO and CCTHB couldn’t tell us whether the Israeli courts had issued a conviction against him. Certain is the fact that half a year ago Michael Zis was not under arrest as he had posted on his Facebook account pictures in which he appeared in an exotic decorum, apparently carefree (photo).

Connections with Moldova

According to the materials of a case that is now pending before Bălţi Court of Appeal, a resident of the town of Edineţ, Alexei Vataga, who is also the nephew by mother of doctor Zis, and a woman from the same town, Svetlana Rusu, who had also sold a kidney some time ago, allegedly intermediated a number of transplant surgeries during 2002-2003, and namely, they found the people who wanted to sell their organs. The people were going to Turkey where Zis met them personally and took them to a private clinic in Istanbul. That’s where the surgeon extracted their organs. In several days, the people were returning home with 9 or 10 thousand dollars. According to the police, the doctor incurred a sum ten times higher for a kidney. No one filed any complaints until the CCTHB officers found out about those cases.

Marin Strungaru’s Arrest

Description: http://www.investigatii.md/images/201108011.jpgIn 2005, a resident of the village of Rotunda, district of Edineţ was arrested in this case. As he stated later, in 2002 he sold a kidney through two persons - Svetlana Rusu and Alexei Vataga. He was sent to Turkey where he was met by Michael Zis who operated on him, after which he returned home with 10 thousand dollars. “I did not know Zis before that or after that,” Marin Strungaru says.
Strungaru was accused of having trafficked three individuals – Angela Iacovlev, her relative Boris Iacovlev and Dorin Răzlog, a youngster from the neighboring village of Hâncăuţi. “I did nothing but gave Angela Iakovlev, an acquaintance of mine, the telephone number of those through whom I had sold my kidney, Marin says. But I tried to convince her to not do that because I already regretted. However, shortly thereafter Angela married a policeman and pressure was exerted on him to convince her to denounce me. All that was done in order to get Vataga and Rusu out crystal clear.”
Shortly, Strungaru was found guilty of trafficking in human beings and sentenced to eight years and six months of imprisonment.

“This Case Aimed At Taking Zis and His Accomplices Out of Sight”

Description: http://www.investigatii.md/images/201108014.jpg“The proceedings unfolded very interestingly here, in Edineţ, Lawyer Vasile Martin who represented Strungaru says. I was explaining in court: the fact that Marin transported them at their request from Edinet to Chişinău because he had a car did not mean at all that he took them to the place of destination. Also, it wasn’t his money paid for the tickets for Turkey. They claimed that he had fooled Angela. How he fooled her if she had asked him herself: “Help me, I have two children, you see in what poverty I live, I also want to make 10 thousand dollars, as you did.” He simply told her that he had gone there and gave them a kidney and that was all his involvement. I am telling you with my entire responsibility: this case aimed at locking up Marin, so that to take Zis, Svetlana Rusu and Alexei Vataga out of sight. This is not an assumption but certitude because only after tens of appeals from Marin did they resume the proceedings against Rusu and Vataga.”
The lawyer is also saying that during the proceedings “huge pressure was being exerted on Marin and Angela.” “The officers of that time of trafficking in human beings were standing here as Damocle’s sword and pressuring her to incriminate Marin. Angela convinced Boris to go against Marin, and Dorin was forced by the officers to do so. They didn’t have evidence and were looking for evidence against him. Basically, Marin was put in jail for nothing. He was a victim of trafficking in organs but ended up himself in jail. Those who recruited him are still in freedom, the lawyer says.

Fines for Trafficking in Persons

In total, Marin Strungaru spent 4.5 years in jail. While he was in detention, he wrote a number of complaints and in the end, charges were brought against Svetalana Rusu and Alexei Vataga. One year ago, in June 2010, Edineţ District Court sentenced Svetlana Rusu under Art.165 “trafficking in human beings” to a fine, although the minimal punishment provided for in this article is 5 years of imprisonment. Alexei Vataga was acquitted. The decision shocked even the CCTHB officers. “It would be good for you to monitor how judgments in regard to Vataga and Rusu are made, we were told at CCTHB. If the media were in the room, the court would issue a fair judgment.” “The law does not provide for a fine to be imposed for such charges. This crime can be sanctioned only by imprisonment. I don’t understand how the court sentenced them to a punishment that is milder than what the law provides. I worked as a judge during the Soviet times but you couldn’t even think about something like this,” Strungaru’s former lawyer Vasile Martin says.

Lawyer of Accused: “Zis Is Not Trafficker Either”

Alexei Vataga’s lawyer Ghenadie Odobescu is of a totally different opinion. He claims that his only fault is that he is relative of doctor Zis. The case was filed out of the blue, Odobescu says, and the prosecutors do not have evidence against his client. “Injured parties change their statements very often. For instance, Dorin Răzlog, originally told the court that he had been trafficked by Strungaru, then by someone called Vasile, then by someone called Mahmud. I do not have proof that pressure had been exerted on the injured parties so that they changed their statements but it is obvious that those were untruthful and false statements, the defendant’s lawyer says.
Moreover, Ghenadie Odobescu claims that neither Zis, once announced in international search by Israel, Ukraine and only now by Moldova, is a trafficker. “Zis was acquitted in Israel and Ukraine. I have a copy of the sentence from Israel against Zis, which I obtained by interpellation and which I presented to the court here when I defended my client. I showed in court that things were not as the prosecutor’s office was trying to interpret. The acquittal sentence from Israel is from last year. And so, those who call him trafficker must show proof that he had been convicted. “

Out of Jail, Looking for Justice at ECHR

Right after he was released from prison, Marin Strungaru filed a complaint with the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR). “How could it happen that I, who had been tried as trafficker of human beings, became a victim in someone else’s case? Doesn’t this seem absurd to you? I will prove that I was tried unfairly. Right in the court room the so-called victims of mine said that it wasn’t me who had trafficked them but Svetlana Rusu. No account was taken of that. Who had money got out clean and clear. One of the individuals who appears as injured party in my case, Dorin Răzlog, is now also injured party in Svetlana Rusu’s case. So who trafficked him, Rusu or I? Angela Iacovlev has called me from Moscow and apologized: “Marin, forgive me, I know that you were not guilty, my husband made me do it. She is now divorced from her husband and that’s why allows herself to say that.”
We managed to find Svetlana Rusu by phone: “I can tell you one thing – that one is guilty who does not have money. I am astonished to see how some can blame someone in such a way. Neither Marin nor I is guilty. The one who is guilty is now walking in freedom,” she started crying and hung up the phone.

Marin Strungaru: I am Four Times Victim

Description: http://www.investigatii.md/images/201108013.jpgAt present, Marin Strungaru lives with his wife in their house in Rotunda and tries to start from scratch. “I am a four times victim – of trafficking, of an unfair trial, of having been put in prison, and of having lost my life because of these people, Strungaru says. Of course I regret I sold my kidney, I shouldn’t have gone to do that. I had better worked all these years in Russia and would have made much more money. On what grounds did they find me guilty? It’s money that solves everything. Who doesn’t have money ends up in jail, like me. All the money I made by selling my kidney I spent to defend myself. I don’t trust the lawyers, or the judges or the prosecutors, there are no honest people in Moldova,” concludes Strungaru, who’s been waiting for two years for an answer from ECHR. He refused to be taken a picture of or to give us an interview, saying that that was useless. Then he started speaking almost without a break when I asked him how from victim he ended up being a “trafficker”.
When I asked the current head of the Prosecution Division of CCTHB Iurie Podarilov why only Strungaru had been put in jail, he answered: “He was the first one to be arrested. The others were deferred to justice as they were found and arrested.” As to his guilt, Podarilov says that “Strungaru from victim became recruiter and that’s why he was trued.”

”How I feel? Bad! Because I Was Too Stupid and Went To Have That Surgery”

Of the three persons who appear in the case as victims trafficked by Marin Strungaru, only Dorin Răzlog is in Moldova. Angela Iacovlev is not in the country and her relative Boris Iacovlev killed himself by strangling for unknown reasons two years after the surgery. We managed to find Dorin Răzlog who is now summoned to court as victim of two other persons - Svetlana Rusu and Alexei Vataga. Dorin works as a shepherd at a sheep shed in Edineţ. He didn’t want to speak with us in any form but allowed us take his picture. “I don’t want to speak with the journalists anymore. They came from America and from France, and promised a lot but haven’t done anything. How I feel? Bad, because I was stupid and went to have that surgery… I don’t speak about Strungaru or about Rusu. I don’t appear before the court in Bălţi because I don’t have money to travel there. You see how we look like.” This is all what we discussed with Dorin Răzlog, whom we found at the sheep shed.

However, his wife Angela says “we have nothing to do with Strungaru.” “He did not stay in jail for Dorin but for others. We have already stated in writing that we have nothing to do with him. Dorin went to have the surgery through Rusu. How could it be Marin? It was a set-up here. I have nothing to do with him. They were simply coming and fooling him and he got so confused that mentioned about Marin, too. How could Marin take him there if it was someone who took Marin, too? Marin went there by his own will and Dorin did the same thing. Dorin went there in order to get out of poverty because he was leading a hard life. How Dorin feels like? Ok, he has pains but gets treatment in Chişinău every year. When he finishes work at the sheep shed he goes to take cure at the rehabilitation center in Chişinău.”

How Victims Become Traffickers

In the case that is currently pending before Bălţi Court of Appeal, in which Svetlana Rusu and Alexei Vataga are on the bench of accused, another defendant has recently appeared, Nicolae Buruiană. In 2002 he was operated upon by the same doctor Zis. Alike the others, he wanted to get rid of poverty, sold a kidney and then when asked by his neighbors to tell them where they should go to make some money, he told them. In over 6 years, the so-called victim of Buruiană, a man from Rezina who was coming to visit someone in Edineţ was found by the officers and made testify. The “victim” does not have any objections and does not come to the court hearings, acknowledges that he had voluntarily sold his kidney and conscientiously went to have the surgery. Now the man is gaining his existence of “trafficker” who has to raise two children by working hard abroad and thinks how to get out of this story.

What Shall We Do With Zis? Nothing!

Description: http://www.investigatii.md/images/201108015.jpgAfter being extradited by Ukraine to Israel, Michael Zis is located in the city of Petah Tiqwa in Israel, how he indicates himself on Facebook. CCTHB told us that “Moldova has started the extradition procedure for Zis but better go ask the GPO.” Answer from GPO: Moldova has never started an extradition procedure for Zis because it is useless! “The most we can do is a case transfer, i.e. to translate the case file into English or Yiddish, to pass it over to Israel and have them try him there,” the GPO answered.
After the Center for Investigative Journalism asked information from GPO and CCTHB for this investigation, the GPO issued a press release in which they tried to report on the work done in this case. Not a word about how the Moldovan law-enforcement bodies plan to try to get Zis punished. On the other hand, their release announces that “overall, the prosecutors have brought charges against 7 persons from this criminal network.” We know at least 3 of the individuals “charged”, who in fact are victims. Art 165 para.(4) of the Criminal Code provides that ”the victim of trafficking in human beings shall be exempted from criminal liability for any crimes committed by him/her in relation to this procedural status.” The question arises: for whose incrimination have the people of the law worked?