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FILE PHOTO - Then Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu speaks during a group session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - China is making progress in eliminating transplants using organs from executed prisoners, but violations still exist and offenders will be punished severely, the director of Beijing's transplant programme said on Tuesday.

"In China, organ donations from civilians and from prisoners cannot co-exist," Dr Huang Jeifu told a Vatican conference bringing together nearly 80 doctors, law enforcement officials and representatives of health and non-government organisations.

"In my governmental organisation there is zero tolerance," he told reporters. "However, China is a big country, with 1.3 billion people, so sure, definitely, there is some violation of the law. If there is some violation of the law it will be severely punished."

More than 100 doctors, judicial officials and others had already been punished recently, he said without elaborating.

In 2015, China officially ended the systematic use of organs from executed prisoners in transplant procedures, a practise long condemned by international human rights groups and medical ethicists.

But the advocacy group Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting said in a statement on Tuesday there was "no evidence that past practices of forced organ harvesting have ended" in China.

"Without transparency, verification of alleged reforms is impossible," said DAFOH executive director Dr. Torsten Trey, adding that those responsible for past abuses must also be held to account.

DAFOH criticised the Vatican for inviting Huang, saying the goals of the conference would be compromised "if China is allowed back into the community of nations without providing evidence that it has truly abandoned its cruel and illegal practise of forcibly harvesting organs".

The head of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, rejected suggestions that Huang should not have been invited, saying the two-day meeting was "not political".

Huang said China had a right to be at the conference.

"This will help China speed up our reforms. Without international cooperation, there will be no transplant reform."

The conference is paying particular attention to the exploitation of migrants by people-smugglers in north Africa. Many are brought from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya and told they need to pay more to get to Europe, forcing them to part with organs if they do not have the cash.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Reuters