In the country’s first case of its kind, an Australian woman accused of being at the center of a surrogacy operation in Cambodia on Tuesday in court described a complex and sprawling commercial network in which she claimed to be just a minor player, with a broker in Bangkok pulling most of the strings.
Tammy Davis-Charles, 49, and two former Cambodian co-workers, Samrith Chakrya, 35, and Pech Rithy, 28, face charges of fraudulently requesting documents and acting as intermediaries between an adoptive parent and a pregnant woman.
They were arrested in November after the government suddenly cracked down on a budding surrogacy industry. Commercial surrogacy was banned the previous month, although formal legislation has yet to be finalized and it remains a legal gray area.
At the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday, the three defendants’ stories were heard for the first time as they testified on the opening day. All three are facing a maximum of two years in prison if convicted.
Before the court heard from surrogate mothers, a witness and police officers, Ms. Davis-Charles, herself a mother of twin boys through surrogacy in Thailand, said she had moved to Cambodia from Thailand after commercial surrogacy was banned there. She said she was advised by lawyers that it was safe to participate in the industry in Cambodia.
“If it was illegal I would never have come here,” she told Judge Sor Linna.
Ms. Davis-Charles founded Fertility Solutions PGD in Thailand with her husband, Simon Davis, after leaving her native Australia.
In court, she rejected several statements that police claimed she had made at the police station after her arrest, claiming that she had been “having trouble” with the translator.
“That’s why I asked for another translator,” she said.
She refuted a previous statement that she had recruited Cambodian women to act as surrogate mothers for clients, stating that she had never said this and the translator at the time had ignored her.
“Yes, I cared for them. I did not find them,” she said, adding that a total of 18 women had been under her care, all carrying babies for Australian couples.
Ms. Davis-Charles described her role as a “medical assistant,” and said she was employed to assist couples from her native country going through the surrogacy process in Cambodia, rather than being the mastermind behind the business.
She also denied that she had told police that she received $50,000 from each couple using her service, again blaming mistranslation.
“No, I did not [say that]. I explained that many times at the police station, and the police and the translator did not listen,” she said.
She told the judge that intended parents spent “on average about $50,000” to conceive a child through surrogacy in Cambodia.
She received just $8,000 of that sum, she said. She added that the surrogate mothers received about $10,000 in total for a successful birth.
Various other service providers also received direct payments from parents, she said, including a Bangkok-based company called Sy Management, which she claimed brokered and screened potential surrogate mothers, as well as processed documents, such as exit visas for the babies.
She said Fertility Clinic of Cambodia, which carried out the surrogacy procedures and referred clients to Ms. Davis-Charles for her consultation services, also received a large share. The Phnom Penh-based clinic could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Ms. Davis-Charles said she hired Ms. Chakrya, a nurse at Phnom Penh’s Preah Sihanouk Hospital, as a translator, while she claimed that Mr. Rithy was paid by Sy Management to handle administrative forms.
The two, however, denied knowing anything about Sy Management.
After Ms. Chakrya’s testimony, in which she denied knowing Sy Management, Ms. Davis-Charles stood up in court and insisted that her former employee had met Sy Management’s director—a man named “Sun Hengly.”
“He was at our apartment. You spoke to him. He offered you a job,” she said.
“I think you better start telling the truth,” she added.
Mr. Rithy also said he had never heard of Sy Management and worked directly for Ms. Davis-Charles. She repeatedly shook her head during these comments.
He said he had earned a $400 monthly wage and charged additional sums of $600 per child for birth certificates, or $800 for twins, and $700 per child for visas, or $1,350 for twins.
“Tammy prepared it and then I passed it on to immigration,” he said of the paperwork. He began working with her in July.
Ms. Chakrya, meanwhile, told the court she had received $650 per month from Ms. Davis-Charles.
“She told me doing this is to help those that are unable to have babies, and some people have wombs which cannot get pregnant,” she said.
She added that the surrogate babies looked like “Asian half-blood babies.”
Ms. Davis-Charles earlier claimed the surrogate mothers were not biologically linked to the infants in any way.
Ms. Chakrya and Mr. Rithy were originally identified by authorities as Samrithchan Chariya and Penh Rithy, respectively.
Mith Sithorn, 34, and Thor Vanny, 36, two surrogate mothers who testified, both said they received monthly payments during the course of their pregnancies directly from Ms. Davis-Charles.
The pair, from Phnom Penh, said they had been recruited by a woman named “Savoeun.” Both said they did not know which agency this person worked for.
Outside the courtroom, Ms. Sithorn said she “pitied” the defendants.
“I don’t want them to be punished. They helped us because we are poor,” she said. “Before, we used to work as scavengers.”
The trial will continue at an undetermined date.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that commercial surrogacy was banned in December. It was banned in October.
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