Czech doctors alleged to have made fortune with the illegal sale of skin grafts

Two of the country's leading skin tissue specialists and three other employees from the biggest of the country's eight tissue banks are under police investigation. They are believed to have pocketed around one million crowns from the sale of human skin to a skin bank in the Netherlands.

At first sight it's like something from a horror movie. For two years, the Czech organised crime police have been collecting evidence in an operation that it unofficially dubbed "skinners". On Friday, the investigation was made public when the head of the country's biggest skin bank, Dagmar Havranova, its former head, Jiri Adler, and three other employees were brought in for police questioning. They are believed to have removed skin grafts from dead human donors and sent them to a skin bank in the Netherlands, which then paid for the tissue with a bank transfer to the private accounts of the accused. It is estimated that they pocketed close to one million crowns (a little under 41,000 US dollars) in the last two years.

In the Czech Republic, only skin grafts from live human donors or pig skin are used for transplants; many other European countries, including Holland, use skin taken from dead donors. The Brno Bohunice faculty hospital, which runs the Czech tissue bank, does not see the investigation as a cause for concern.

At the tissue bank in Brno on Monday, it was work as usual. To the faculty hospital management, the five employees will remain innocent until proven guilty. Spokeswoman Anna Nesvadbova gave us the following statement:

"The Brno Faculty Hospital has been informed that our employees are under investigation by the Czech police. Unfortunately, we have not been informed about any more details or further steps of the Czech police. Nevertheless, we do respect the rights of the accused to be considered innocent until a final judgement is made."

Their client, the Euro Skin Bank - a non-profit, non-governmental organisation that is based in the Dutch town of Beverwijk, pays 20 eurocents for every cm2 of skin. Its director, Michael Rutgers, is positive that its money was not transferred to any private bank accounts:

"What we do is we obtain tissue, which we send out to other hospitals all over Europe for the use in the treatment of severe burns. So, we are very thankful to the hospital that it helps us to do our work. It's quite a simple procedure. They deliver skin tissue to our bank and we pay a bill that is mostly in two parts - one to the university and another to a foundation related to the skin bank. Those are just regular bills according to contracts that are undersigned by all the people involved. Of course, I don't know what happens with the money after it comes to the university and the tissue bank but I'm not aware of any direct payments from us to private bank accounts."

Mr Rutgers also sees no reason why cooperation with the Brno hospital should be discontinued; it provided them with skin grafts from 20 dead donors and its staff has been outstandingly professional:

"We have a good relationship with the university hospital and the tissue bank - they are doing their job very well. We are very happy with the tissue that they have delivered. We heard that there was an investigation by the police and it was very worrying because we didn't know what it was about. Of course, we do our quality checks but you never know what else is found. After that we stopped the delivery of skin to our bank because we wanted to have that dealt with first.

"So, we thought we should have a new contract only and mainly with the university as an umbrella organisation in order to avoid any other misinterpretation. As soon as our colleagues are cleared we will continue because the material they produce is very good."

The suspects could each face five years in prison if they are found guilty of the illegal handling of tissues and organs. But Czech law is somewhat vague on this issue. The doctors were authorised to remove the tissue and there is no law that prevents them from exporting it abroad. They will only have committed a crime if it is proven that they pocketed the money.