VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Beijing's top official on transplants said on Tuesday Beijing was "mending its ways" from a murky past when organs were taken from detained or executed prisoners.
Dr Huang Jiefu also told a Vatican conference bringing together nearly 80 doctors, law enforcement officials and representatives of health and non-government organisations that his participation, which medical ethics groups have criticised, was not an attempt to whitewash the past.
"China is mending its ways and constantly improving its national organ donation and transplantation systems," said Huang, a former deputy health minister who is director of Beijing's transplant programme.
In 2015, China officially ended the systematic use of organs from executed or detained prisoners in transplant procedures, but international human rights groups and medical ethicists have called for more transparency.
"This trip is not to whitewash our past but to let China's voice to be heard and to introduce China's new program to the world," he told the conference discussing ways to combat organ trafficking and transplant tourism.
The advocacy group Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) 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.
Huang said China was serious about severely punishing violators, had made dozens of arrests and closed 18 medical institutions but he urged patience because the new programme was still in its infancy.
"China's transplantation reform has been an arduous journey," he said. "As long as we move ahead, China will be the largest country for organ transplants in an undisputed ethical way in a few years."
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 practice of forcibly harvesting organs".
The head of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, said Huang's participation in the two-day meeting could help encourage 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.
(Corrects spelling of official's name in second paragraph to 'Jiefu', not 'Jeifu')
Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Ralph Boulton