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No wrongdoing in ex-Barça player’s liver transplant, says governing body

Spain’s National Transplant Organization concludes 2012 procedure on former soccer player Éric Abidal, from a living donor, was carried out “in accordance with the law”

Gerard and Abidal in hospital in 2012, in an image published by the ex-player.
Gerard and Abidal in hospital in 2012, in an image published by the ex-player.Twitter

Spain’s National Transplant Organization (ONT) has concluded that a liver transplant performed on the former Barcelona FC soccer player Éric Abidal, from a living donor, was carried out “in accordance with the law.” The announcement comes after the ONT – in conjunction with the Clinic hospital in Barcelona and the Catalan Transplant Organization (OCATT) – examined “every single one of the processes within the area of its competencies, that’s to say, from a clinical and healthcare point of view.”

The investigation was launched after news reports surfaced earlier this month that there may have been irregularities with the transplant, which was performed in 2012 on the then-player after he was diagnosed with a tumor. Abidal’s cousin was apparently the living donor. The legality of the process was thrown into doubt, however, after wiretapped phone conversations of then-Barcelona FC president Sandro Rosell emerged, in which he and a person with whom he is talking appear to suggest that the liver that Abidal received was paid for illegally by the club, and that his cousin was not, in fact, the donor.

In the wake of the allegations, Abidal strenuously denied that there had been any wrongdoing, and published a photo of himself and his cousin in hospital purportedly after the procedure had taken place. Rosell – who is currently in prison ahead of a trial for money laundering and criminal organization offense – also issued a statement from jail earlier this month in which he denied any wrongdoing, and claimed that his words had been taken out of context.

In a statement released today, the ONT stated that the data it has “confirms that the liver transplant performed on Éric Abidal was carried out according to the current legislation and with good clinical practices.” The ONT added that “contrary to what has been published in some news stories,” Abidal “was on the waiting list for a deceased donor liver transplant.

“Given the progression of his illness, the medical team considered the option of a liver transplant from a live donor, which under no circumstance excluded the possibility of a transplant from a deceased donor should the opportunity have arisen,” they explain. As such, they consider it proven that the family link with the live donor (his cousin, according to Abidal) was “verified via documents at the center, which is the first filter that the law considers for a live donation.” Spanish legislation does not, however, necessarily require live donors to have a family link to the recipient.

The wiretapped conversations

As revealed by Spanish news website El Confidencial, three of Sandro Rosell’s phone calls tapped by the Spanish authorities put into doubt whether the donor was Abidal’s cousin, as the then-player had stated, and suggested that the organ was instead illegally paid for by the club. Abidal had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor at the time.

In the recordings made by the Civil Guard, “Juanjo” is recorded complaining about the attitude of Abidal toward the club’s board. “He’s going against us,” the man says on the tape. “We bought an illegal liver for this guy.” Rosell is heard to agree. Junajo adds: “And we sold the story that it was from his cousin. From his cousin!” Again, Rosell agrees, saying “Yes, yes, yes.”

In total there were three calls that pointed to an alleged fraud related to the transplant.

The ONT went on to confirm that the Clinic hospital in Barcelona, where the procedure took place, has a record of the birth certificate and family book of both the donor and the recipient, “from which it can be deduced that they are first cousins.” What’s more, the ONT found that the donor was subject to a “rigorous medical-surgical and psychosocial evaluation, in which his motivation for the donation and his relationship with the recipient were adequately examined.”

The ONT also found it to be true that Abidal’s cousin appeared before the judge in charge of the Barcelona Civil Registry before the procedure went ahead. There, the magistrate “once again checked the documents that proved the relationship between donor and recipient and put on the record that the donation was being carried out with free will and in an altruistic manner.”

In spite of all the evidence it has found, the ONT has also announced that, “given the seriousness of the facts of the case and taking into account that its competencies are limited to the clinical-health area,” it will appear as private prosecution should the judge decide to reopen the case. “If these facts are not investigated in depth there may be mistrust among citizens over the process of organ donation, something that allows for thousands of lives to be saved in our country every year,” the ONT stated, adding that it is at the disposal of the public prosecutor and the Civil Guard to supply them with “any kind of information” that they might need in relation to this case.

The ONT concluded stating its “zero tolerance” approach when it comes to organ trafficking, and “thanks citizens and the media for their confidence in the Spanish transplants system.”

English version by Simon Hunter.