A gang of human traffickers accepted migrants' organs as payment for smuggling them to Europe in a perilous journey from northern Africa, an Italian police investigation has revealed.
The gang, composed by Libyans and Eritreans, allegedly demanded that asylum seekers pay €1,500 (£1,200) up front to board one of the many run-down boats that leave from the Tripoli area for Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa every week.
Those who could not immediately afford the price were given the possibility to pay at a later stage, according to court documents seen by Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Upon their arrival on European soil, the gang decided whether to "use them as manpower or organ donors," according to documents ordering pre-trial detention for five gang-members.
Judge Tiziana Coccoluto wrote that the condition of migrants who had to pay off their debt was akin to that of slaves, noting that the gang could also sell them off to other criminal groups.
The group's 'treasurer' Michael Brhane, who operated in Rome, was arrested earlier this year along with four other men - Haile Seifu, Russom Gebrem Michael Henok, and Tesfay Bahta - who allegedly worked as money collectors across the Italian peninsula.
They are facing charges of being members of a criminal organisation aimed at smuggling migrants.
Police suspect that the gang was linked to human smugglers responsible for a migrant boat that sank off Lampedusa in October last year, killing 336 people.
This year, more than 100,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Italy, while almost 3,000 have drowned on the way to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration.