By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - Five men were convicted in Kosovo on Monday of involvement in an organ trafficking ring that performed at least 23 illegal kidney transplants at a clinic on the outskirts of the capital, under the noses of United Nations police and NATO peacekeepers.
The trial of the men, all citizens of Kosovo, has taken on added significance in the region because it echoes a high-profile probe into alleged organ harvesting by guerrilla fighters during the 1998-99 war.
Would-be donors from Turkey and poor parts of the former Soviet Union were lured to the clinic in Pristina, called Medicus, on a promise of 10,000-12,000 euros ($13,000-15,600).
Recipients, mainly Israelis, paid between 80,000 and 100,000 euros for the organs. Some donors never received any money.
"They were alone, did not speak the local language, were uncertain of what they were doing and had no one to protect their interests," Judge Dean Pineles, part of an international panel of judges, told the court.
The scandal came to light in late 2008 when a Turkish man was stopped by police at Pristina airport, visibly in pain having had his kidney removed.
The case grew in notoriety when allegations surfaced that the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which waged an insurgency against Serbian forces in the late 1990s, had extracted and sold organs from captives, some of them Serbs, at sites in neighboring Albania.
A 2011 report by Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty cited evidence that the two cases were linked and went to the highest echelons of power in the impoverished Balkan country.
Judge Pineles criticized Marty and the Council of Europe for refusing a prosecution request for him to testify, saying they had "quickly retreated behind the cloak of immunity." He said the judges were "perplexed" by the refusal.
The director of the Medicus clinic, urologist Lutfi Dervishi, was jailed for eight years for organized crime and trafficking in persons. His son, Arban, was jailed for seven years and three months.
Anesthetist Sokol Hajdini was sentenced to three years in prison and two other defendants received one-year suspended sentences. Two more were acquitted. They had all denied any wrongdoing. Prosecutors said they would appeal.
Warrants have been issued for two more suspects - Turkish surgeon Yusuf Ercin Sonmez and alleged ringleader Moshe Harel, an Israeli citizen.
A special task force, appointed by the European Union and led by United States prosecutor Clint Williamson, is investigating Marty's allegations against the KLA and is expected to issue a report in 2014.
NATO intervened in the war in 1999, launching 11 weeks of air strikes to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces trying to crush the KLA insurgency.
Kosovo, then a Serbian province, became a ward of the United Nations, patrolled by NATO, and declared independence in February 2008.
Serbia, which does not recognize the 2008 secession, has seized on the allegations as proof that the KLA, with which NATO cooperated during its bombing campaign, also committed war crimes.
The allegations have infuriated Kosovo's political elite and government, which contains many senior ex-guerrillas including Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. Thaci has dismissed the allegations as nonsense.
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Mike Collett-White)