On Monday, May 20, Gazprom-Media-owned TV station NTV aired a report on former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, accusing him of a litany of offenses, from being a CIA agent to marital infidelity, as well as fomenting unrest in Ukraine.
The report -- featuring interviews with a masked man claiming to be a Ukrainian army officer and another, with his back to the camera, who claimed to have worked for Ukraine’s security services -- asserted that the organs of wounded Ukrainian soldiers were harvested in the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone (Ukraine) in eastern Ukraine for export to Europe.
Polygraph.info video fact check by Nik Yarst
The men alleged that prior to the February 18, 2015 forced withdrawal of Ukrainian troops after the Battle of Debaltseve, Saakashvili’s wife, Sandra Roelofs, along with Alexander Kvitashvili, the former Georgian Minister of Health and a former Minister of Healthcare of Ukraine, “quietly” brought a group of organ transplant specialists to Kyiv.
The report claims that Roelofs and Kvitashvili then met with members of the Ukrainian General Staff to implement their scheme. The report, however, does not name any of the Ukrainian generals who allegedly participated in conspiring, or provide any details about the place or time of the alleged meeting.
The alleged Ukrainian security services member claimed he was attached to a special medical group called “Emergency Care and Resuscitation,” purportedly supervised by Roelofs, which set up centers in Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk, Ukraine, where all of the wounded Ukrainian soldiers were sent.
At these centers, an organ transplant expert -- identified as Elisabeth De Brück or Ellis -- allegedly introduced the practice of removing the organs of wounded soldiers without their permission. Polygraph.info was unable to establish the identity of the said “Elisabeth De Brück.”
The NTV report claimed the organs of dead Ukrainian soldiers were harvested and sent off to Europe.
"The army was turned into a private business. A business where you profit from the officials. It is the business of selling the bodies of our soldiers, which are supplied from Ukraine to Europe," the alleged Ukrainian army officer said.
The report referred to similar claims made against Roelofs in Georgia. In 2016, for example, a website calling itself “Georgia and the World” leaked what it claimed were SMS messages between Saakashvili and Roelofs showing that the pair were working in conjunction with Bilal Erdoğan, son of the Turkish president, to harvest organs in territories controlled by Islamic State. No evidence was provided to back up those claims.
We find the claim of organ harvesting to be false. Our verification, below is a complicated and interesting story that requires digging into the source of the report and organ transplant procedures.
NTV – Among Russia’s Top Channels
NTV boasts that 39.1 million Russians tune into the channel every week, saying it has ranked among Russia’s top three television channels for more than 20 years. The channel further claimed it is “highly regarded in Russia and abroad,” with its correspondents, commentators and anchors regularly honored with “top journalistic and government prizes for their work.”
However, parts of the NTV report alleging the organ harvesting conspiracy (including the interview with the alleged Ukrainian security services member) were lifted from a fabricated video posted on the SLOVO.net.ua “information agency” channel in September 2015 without attribution.
In 2016, Georgia’s Media Meter, which receives funding from the United States Agency for International Development, debunked the claim that that video had been published by the head of Ukraine’s State Security Service.
That report tracked down the source of footage used in the video montage, including scenes depicting human corpses and surgeries spliced in for dramatic effect.
Georgia’s USAID-funded fact-checking website Myth Detector likewise debunked a report that appeared on the Russian Defense Ministry’s Zvezda TV (and was later reprinted in the Georgian newspaper Asaval –Dasavali), which also used footage from the SLOVO.net.ua video.
That report relied on yet another false claim -- that the lawyer for former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was involved in a black market organ transplant scheme -- which was later debunked by the Ukrainian fact-checking website StopFake.org.
Myth Detector poked the biggest hole in the claim about the organ-harvesting scheme: it is logistically not viable.
According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Transplantation (DoT), donated organs have a short shelf life, including:
- 4-6 hours for hearts and lungs
- 8-12 hours for livers
- 12-18 hours for the pancreas
- 24-36 hours for kidneys
- 8-16 hours for intestines
There are also numerous compatibility issues with the organ donor recipient, including but not limited to blood type, body size and severity of medical condition.
A Deep Dive into the Organ Donation Process
Joel Newman, the Senior Communications strategist at the United Network for Organ Sharing, told Polygraph.info the accusation of illicit organ harvesting often springs up in war zones.
“This accusation has been thrown against U.S. forces with Iraqi war dead, Israelis and Palestinians, and [during the war] in the Balkans,” Newman said.
“But the reality of using organs from deceased persons [illicitly] is small.”
Newman said that the conditions under which organs are recovered and transported would require people who are very skilled in the purposes of transplantation.
“Organs cannot be frozen. They have to be kept very sterile and are kept in a wet-ice solution with a chemical preservative that they flush the organs with,” he said.
While organs with longer viability periods like kidneys have been transported across international borders for the purposes of organ transplant (from Canada to the United States, for example), “lots of the pre-work is done before the organ is recovered,” Newman said.
“This is all carefully determined and arranged beforehand.”
For example, Newman said immune system markers are collated to see how genetically similar donors and recipients are.
“The level of match is very important and needs to be well-documented,” he said. “It is necessary to keep organ rejection from happening. A final serum test is conducted before a kidney is delivered to the hospital.”
As for more sensitive organs like hearts and lungs, he said much of the simultaneous work is done before the transplant takes place.
“They may go ahead and crack the chest and have the patient ready to receive the organ if time is of the essence,” Newman said.
Torsten Trey, executive director of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, shares that view.
“Given the logistics of identifying a soldier [in eastern Ukraine] who is eligible, has no close family that could expose the act, and given transportation needs, it appears unlikely that this could apply for heart or liver transplants,” Torsten told Polygraph.info.
“With regards to kidney transplants, one might have the time to solve logistics.”
But even the potential viability of kidneys does not cover the regulatory hurdles.
“In the U.S. if Dr. Johnson books the OR [Operating Room] there is going to be a large paper trail as to why he did that, including the primary surgeon, nurses and anesthesiologist involved. This process involves immense documentation,” Newman said.
Torsten noted that Europe has a transparent donor system, with most countries prohibiting transplant tourism.
“If an organ is being imported, it would be known,” he said.
Then there is the issue of payment, as the European donation system “is based on altruism.”
“Transplant tourism bypasses this by offering incentives to donors abroad. It is unlikely that transplant centers in Europe would permit transplants after paid organ donations, which would be revealed if traced back,” Torsten said.
Newman said that in places like the People’s Republic of China, where the government has been accused of harvesting the organs of political prisoners, the accusations are viable because the state apparatus itself is being harnessed to that end, helping overcome the logistical, technical and regulatory hurdles any such illicit practice would confront.
Torsten echoed that assessment.
“If you compare [Europe] with China, it is more ‘domestic organ trafficking’ [in the latter], because the organs are transplanted inside the country which bypasses problems of passing the border. It is an open secret in China that organs are transplanted for money; that would be a problem in European countries,” he said, adding the scheme alleged in the NTV report “is not feasible.”
That opinion was shared by Newman.
“The actual viability of [illicit organ transplants] from deceased donors with all of the level of administrative scrutiny and medical viability – recovering the organ in a time frame from which it can be used, moving it from a place of unrest to a more settled area – those hurdles would be immense. I cannot see that it would be possible,” Newman said.
Russian Disinformation – Organ Harvesting
The NTV report fits into a broader pattern of Russian disinformation, which has produced accusations that Saakashvili and Roelofs, along with Ukrainian public figures, have been involved in harvesting organs since the Russian-backed war in eastern Ukraine broke out.
Besides the false claim directed at Tymoshenko’s lawyer, StopFake.org reported in August 2014 on an on-line post depicting the bodies of five men whose organs were allegedly harvested to be sold in Europe “for a handsome sum of money to make [Ukrainian businessman] Igor Kolomoiskii and [former Ukrainian president] Petro Poroshenko richer.”
However, the image used in the post had appeared in another publication three years earlier.
In 2017, after Ukraine’s Health Ministry sought to introduce a pilot kidney donor transplant program, Russian media claimed it would turn Ukraine into a supplier of organs for sale.
Ukraine’s Deputy Health Minister Oleksander Lynchevskyi told StopFake.org that such claims were part of a broader Russian disinformation narrative that Ukraine is setting up an organ transplant black market.
Earlier in 2017, Russian media reported a fake story alleging French customs had confiscated a shipment of organs from Ukraine.
As for the alleged facilities in eastern Ukraine, the list of all Severodonetsk’s medical facilities does not include an organ transplant center.
In Kramatorsk, there is a regular emergency medical care station.
When Polygraph.info contacted medical centers in Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk to determine if any specialized organ transplant facilities had been established in Ukraine during the time the alleged organ-harvesting scheme was underway, representatives from those centers replied that no such centers have ever existed.
Due to the lack of viability of the alleged black market organ transplant scheme, the recycled nature of previously debunked materials the NTV report relies on, and systematic failure to provide evidence to back up its claims, Polygraph.info finds the NTV report to be false.