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The mystery of Saimir Sula’s heartless body

The family of a 31-year-old Albanian who died in hospital in Barcelona has been campaigning for Spain to repatriate the organ for DNA tests, on suspicion that it was stolen for a transplant

Majlinda Sula protests
Majlinda Sula (center) protests to demand that her brother's heart be repatriated and that DNA tests be carried out, in an image provided by the family.
Pablo Linde

Spain was beginning to emerge from the most serious part of the Covid-19 pandemic, in May 2020, when Saimir Sula, a 31-year-old Albanian citizen, noticed that he had a fever. He went to the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona for a PCR test and did not make it out alive. When his body was repatriated for an autopsy, the forensic experts in his country made a startling discovery: Saimir’s body was missing his heart. After three years of lawsuits and letters between the Spanish and Albanian authorities, both are now finalizing the transfer of the organ.

But how did this situation come about? Why was the organ extracted, and how can anybody be 100% sure that it is his heart that will be returned to Albania? All these are questions that the Prosecutor’s Office in Tirana wants to resolve by completing the autopsy and performing DNA tests, given the suspicion that Sula may have been a victim of organ trafficking — a hypothesis that has been discarded by the Spanish judicial system.

Majlinda Sula, Saimir’s sister, suspected from the outset that something strange had happened. Saimir’s medical reports said that he was very agitated and that he died after hospital security guards had to restrain him. The autopsy, performed by the Catalan Institut de Medicina Legal i Ciències Forenses, concludes that his death “was the consequence of cardiac arrest due to subcritical coronary atheromatosis” and acknowledges that “the presence of bronchiolitis, fever, agitation and restraint were factors in the outcome, causing increased cardiac demand.”

“Before that, he called me and told me that he was being treated badly, so I refused to sign a paper that they gave me so that he could be cremated without further ado. I asked for the body to be repatriated to Albania so that they could do the autopsy there,” Majlinda explains by telephone from Barcelona, where she has lived since she was a teenager.

At the same time, she contacted lawyer Carlos Sardinero, who works for an NGO specialized in the rights of patients and malpractice, to handle the case. Sardinero explains that — despite the case having been closed twice because the judges ruled the necessary tests had been carried out to prove that Sula died of natural causes — there are many pieces of the puzzle that do not fit.

A spokeswoman for the Hospital del Mar told EL PAÍS that the institution “cooperated actively from the outset” and that the judge “ruled out any responsibility on the part of the center.” The result of the autopsy, which was not performed at the Hospital del Mar, “ruled out that the death had any relation with the hospital’s actions, concluding that it was attributable to the previous pathologies suffered by the patient,” the spokeswoman said.

Theoretically, Saimir’s heart is at the National Institute of Toxicology (INT). But the date given for the initiation of the tests is April 22, 17 days before the death of the Albanian, who had been living in Spain for 10 years. “They told us it was an error, but they haven’t given any more clarification than that. Inexplicably, the Provincial Court of Barcelona rejected the DNA testing of the patient’s heart, as requested by the family and the Albanian government. It was filed with a series of unprecedented contradictions: it was established that there was insufficient evidence to consider that the patient’s death was the result of a violent death due to the restraint measures taken by the hospital’s security personnel; however, they then went on to say the opposite, stating that the intermediate cause of his death was the agitation and restraint that he was subjected to,” says Sardinero.

The lawyer considers that the Spanish justice system is “adding obscurity” to the matter by not performing something “as quick and simple” as a DNA test. “It could be quickly verified that it is his heart. They tell us that there is no reason to do more tests but at no time was it stated that the organ was going to be extracted and, when it was, the chain of custody was broken,” adds Sardinero.

Given these loose ends, the suspicion of the Albanian judicial authorities is that Saimir was a victim of organ trafficking and that his heart is now beating in someone else’s body. “I don’t know if that’s what it is, or if the guards simply beat him up and killed him. That’s why we want them to do the autopsy and the DNA test, to find out the truth,” says Majlinda.

A three-year search for the truth

Majlinda has spent three years trying to find out what happened to her brother. First, to determine the cause of his death and later, when it was discovered that his body had no heart, to find out what had become of it.

She has written to both the Spanish and Albanian authorities and has protested in both countries, and in Brussels. Saimir’s case is well-known in Albania and a documentary has even been made about it. However, she says it has not been easy to be heard.

She succeeded in getting the Prosecutor’s Office and the Albanian authorities to request the heart through various channels, something that was ignored on several occasions by the Spanish courts. In March of this year, the diplomatic efforts bore fruit. After processing a rogatory commission promoted by Albania, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the relevant court in Barcelona to initiate the repatriation of the organ.

The court’s response came this month, when it asked the INT to provide details of the method of preservation and the technical means for transferring the heart to Albania “as quickly as possible.” Once these details are finalized, the organ will be transferred and the mystery of whether it belongs to Saimir will finally be solved. At the same time, Sardinero is still fighting in the courts and has filed a motion for annulment for the case to be reopened to get to the bottom of what he understands to be “a violation of fundamental rights.”

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