An Australian nurse who ran an illegal surrogacy clinic in Cambodia that matched foreign couples with local women, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Thursday, as authorities in the impoverished kingdom tackle "rent-a-womb" businesses.
Tammy Davis-Charles, 49, has been in custody since her arrest in November last year, weeks after Cambodia abruptly banned commercial surrogacy.
Southeast Asia had been a popular international destination for infertile couples looking to have babies through commercial surrogacy. But Thailand banned the practice in 2015 after a series of high-profile cases and Cambodia followed suit in 2016.
Davis-Charles is accused of moving from Thailand to take advantage of the surrogacy boom in Cambodia, which lacked regulations at the time and quickly mopped up demand from foreign couples, mostly from Australia.
She was found guilty of being an intermediary in surrogacy and engaging in falsifying documents along with two Cambodian staff, Penh Rithy and Samrithchan Chariya, said Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge So Lyna.
Penh Rithy and Samrithchan Chariya knew about the commercial surrogacy ban but still engaged in the illegal business, said the judge.
Police said her clinic charged would-be parents $50,000 to $70,000, while Cambodian surrogates received around $10,000 to $12,000 each – a vast sum in a nation where the average annual income is around $1,200.
Davis-Charles, who advertised surrogacy services online, was accused of bringing more than 23 Cambodian women into the trade for 18 Australian and five American couples.
Her two Cambodian colleagues were convicted of the same charges and also jailed for 18 months.
In her defence statement in July, Davis-Charles broke down in tears in front of the court appealing for mercy from the bench, saying she had already "lost everything" during her six months in custody.
During the trial she denied recruiting the surrogates, saying her role was limited to providing medical care.
Davis-Charles had twins through a Thai surrogate before going into "the surrogacy business full-time... to help people everyday," according to her post on the website of her Bangkok-registered company.
Surrogacy agencies started sprouting up in Cambodia in 2015 after neighbouring Thailand shut down the trade following a series of scandals, including tussles over custody.
Critics also say the shadowy trade exploits poor women.
With cheap medical costs, a large pool of poor young women and no laws excluding gay couples or single parents, Cambodia quickly absorbed demand.
But in late 2016, authorities shut down the trade and refused to recognise birth certificates for babies, leaving many foreign couples in limbo.
In April this year, the government said it would allow foreign couples to return home with babies if they could prove they were conceived before the ban on commercial surrogacy.
While Cambodia's crackdown has slowed the tide of foreign couples, it has failed to snuff out an industry that remains a lure for some of the country's most vulnerable women.
"There is certainly still surrogacy going on underground," said Sam Everingham, director of the Australia-based consultancy Families Through Surrogacy.
Turning to Laos
The trade has also shifted over to neighbouring Laos which has yet to criminalise commercial surrogacy.
Laos' role as the new surrogacy destination emerged after Thai authorities arrested a man attempting to smuggle six large refrigerated vials of sperm into the Communist country – presumably for use in the booming surrogacy clinics.
Some offer to carry out the embryo transfer in Laos and then provide pregnancy care for the surrogate in Thailand, a wealthier country with vastly superior medical facilities.
Thai authorities banned the trade in late 2014 following a slew of scandals, including the discovery of nine babies in a Bangkok apartment fathered by a rich Japanese man using Thai surrogates.