Surrogacy Broker Given 18-Month Sentence

Slumping on a bench inside her holding cell on Thursday morning, Tammy Davis-Charles put her head in her hands and began sobbing as the reality of her prison sentence began to sink in.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Sor Linna had just sentenced Ms. Davis-Charles, 49, to 18 months in prison for her role as a surrogacy broker, helping connect foreign adoptive parents with Cambodian women willing to carry their babies.

cam photo tammy channa FRONT
Tammy Davis-Charles arrives for sentencing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday for her role in a surrogacy operation in Cambodia. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

In the only criminal case the government has pursued after the once-burgeoning trade was banned in October, Ms. Davis-Charles was charged with falsifying documents and acting as an intermediary. She was also ordered to pay a fine of 4 million riel, or about $1,000.

The Australian national has already served nine months in Prey Sar prison, where she has been held awaiting trial since being arrested in November.

Her two associates, Samrith Chakrya, 35, and, Pech Rithy, 28, were each sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison and fined 2 million riel, or about $500, for the same crime.

“The court found that during 2015 and 2016 there really are facts proving the acts of the three [accused] and despite knowing that doing this is against the law, the defendants still conspired to have babies sent overseas,” Judge Linna said, before announcing the sentences.

Wearing an orange jumpsuit, Ms. Davis-Charles shook her head several times as the judge spoke, as Ms. Chakrya, who has a 4-month-old baby, sobbed in court.

The trio were detained after the government suddenly cracked down on the surrogacy industry, which had moved to Cambodia after being outlawed in other Asian countries, including Thailand and Nepal.

Dozens of prospective parents were left in legal limbo, unable to take their surrogate children out of the country, leading to some illegally taking them across the border and onto their home countries. Official guidelines on how intended parents can legally take their children out of the country in cooperation with their embassies have now been released by the government, but formal legislation has yet to be finalized and it remains a legal gray area.

At a hearing last month, Ms. Davis-Charles had broken down as she described the toll the case had taken on her, saying she had lost 20 kg and had cancer in her left eye. The mother of six said that her 5-year-old twin boys, born via a surrogate in Thailand, could not imagine her coming home.

“I have lost everything,” she said, also claiming she would have never come to Cambodia if she knew it was illegal.

Ms. Davis-Charles had been living in Thailand, where she founded Fertility Solutions PGD with her husband, Simon Davis, after leaving her native Australia.

During the trial, Ms. Davis-Charles claimed she was a minor player in a Cambodian surrogacy network, with a broker in Bangkok heading the operation and clients referred to her by the Fertility Clinic of Cambodia (FCC) in Phnom Penh.

Prospective parents paid up to $50,000 to conceive a child through surrogacy, she told the court, for which she received $8,000 for her consultancy services. Cambodian surrogate mothers, who carried the babies, were paid about $10,000.

It is thought she was providing care for 23 surrogate mothers, with the babies destined for Australia and the U.S.

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, claiming she only “cared for them” but had not found them.

Ms. Davis-Charles told the court in June that she had hired Ms. Chakrya, a nurse at Phnom Penh’s Preah Sihanouk Hospital, and that Mr. Rithy, a Commerce Ministry official, had processed all the paperwork. She claimed that Mr. Rithy worked for the Bangkok brokering firm, called Sy Management, which Mr. Rithy denied.

Exiting the courtroom on Thursday, Ms. Davis-Charles declined to comment before putting on a pair of sunglasses and rushing into her holding cell where she broke down, pushing away the condolences of her co-defendants and later turning to face a wall.

However, Stephen Page, an Australian lawyer specializing in surrogacy, had little sympathy.

“The law in Cambodia about surrogacy remained unclear. When the government said that enough was enough, Tammy Davis-Charles should have heeded the message and stopped then and there,” Mr. Page said in an email.

“The simple fact is that she did not, and continued to promote intended parents to come to Cambodia,” he continued.

“It was as though she was the captain of the Titanic, who upon being told there was ice, decided instead to go full steam ahead,” he added.

“Quite simply she was reckless not only for herself, but much more importantly the intended parents, the surrogates she induced to carry babies for foreigners and above all in the lives of the most vulnerable—the children.”

Falsification of documents would not have been something the couples awaiting children would have been aware of, Mr. Page said.

“No parent wants to be a party to fraud about how their child was conceived and born,” he said, adding that there were still would-be parents awaiting children from Cambodia.

“Tammy Davis-Charles knew the risks and blithely ignored them. I hope she never has anything to do with surrogacy and fertility services again.”

Sam Everingham, director of Australia-based advocacy group Families Through Surrogacy, said he had some compassion for Ms. Davis-Charles, but called her actions “reckless.”

“I do have sympathy for Tammy Davis-Charles given the length of her sentence and the fact that her motives were to assist childless couples,” Mr. Everingham said in an email.

“However, I do also think she was reckless to operate in such an unregulated environment as a foreigner,” he said, adding that it was clear authorities wanted to set an example.

Mr. Everingham said that as far as he was aware, there were no couples in Australia awaiting children from Cambodia.

Despite the court’s legal pursuit of Ms. Davis-Charles and her Cambodian associates, there appears to have been little effort by authorities to investigate some of the 50 surrogacy providers and brokers that industry experts said were operating in Cambodia when the justice minister called for the ban.

In June, Keo Thea, chief of Phnom Penh’s anti-human trafficking bureau, said the Fertility Clinic of Cambodia would not even be questioned despite being heavily embroiled in Ms. Davis-Charles’ case.

Officials from the national committee to combat human trafficking could not be reached on Thursday for comment.

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