Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Aussie surrogate nurse guilty

Aussie surrogate nurse guilty

Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles is seen in a police vehicle before being sentenced to 18 months in prison in Cambodia’s landmark surrogacy trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday.
Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles is seen in a police vehicle before being sentenced to 18 months in prison in Cambodia’s landmark surrogacy trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday. Pha Lina

Aussie surrogate nurse guilty

An Australian nurse and two Cambodian associates were found guilty and each sentenced to 18 months in prison yesterday in the country’s first-ever surrogacy trial, a move observers said was intended to send a strong message of deterrence to surrogacy agents.

Fertility Solutions PGD founder and nurse Tammy Davis-Charles, fellow nurse Samrith Chakriya and Commerce Ministry employee Penh Rithy stood with their hands clasped in front of them yesterday as the guilty verdict was read out at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Davis-Charles remained impassive and declined to answer reporters’ questions as she left the courtroom yesterday, but later sat and cradled her head in her hands.

Chakriya wiped tears from her eyes and nodded when asked if she would appeal the verdict. “It is unjust for me,” she said.

A blanket ban on commercial surrogacy was issued in October last year – a move welcomed by anti-surrogacy advocates who claimed the controversial industry exploited the bodies of vulnerable and impoverished Cambodian women.

The trio were detained just weeks later, but their arrest took place in a legal grey area, with a law on surrogacy in Cambodia still being drafted.

Judge Sor Lina found all three guilty of being intermediaries between a pregnant woman and an adoptive parent, and of fraudulently obtaining documents, such as birth certificates. They faced a maximum of two and a half years in prison.

Davis-Charles was fined 4 million riel ($1,000) and her Cambodian colleagues 2 million riel each ($500). Cambodia’s controversial surrogacy industry – which blossomed after restrictions on the practice in India, Nepal and Thailand – saw intended parents paying up to $50,000 per pregnancy, with just $10,000 going to the surrogate mother.

All three accused had denied aspects of the charges in court. Davis-Charles said she never recruited women to carry foreign babies, saying her role was to care for surrogates during their pregnancy, pay them in instalments and witness the contracts they signed with intended parents. Chakriya, as a nurse and translator, claimed to know very little about the surrogacy process.

Judge Lina found their arguments unconvincing. “The crimes did happen. Tammy Davis-Charles was the representative of the surrogate company, Penh Rithy was in charge of birth certificates and documents to bring the baby out [of Cambodia], and Samrith Chan Chakriya cooperated with Davis-Charles by helping to take care of surrogate mothers,” she said. “Samrith Chan Chakriya truly knew that this was surrogacy.”

Chakriya stopped working for Davis-Charles in July last year, months before her arrest, to give birth to a baby daughter. On the last day of her trial last month, she made a tearful plea for her release and begged to be reunited with her now 1-year-old child.

Australian national Tammy Davis-Charles (second left), is escorted by police officials into the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday.
Australian national Tammy Davis-Charles (second left), is escorted by police officials into the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Davis-Charles also broke down in tears on the final day of the trial, saying her health had suffered at Prey Sar prison. She hadn’t seen her twin boys – born through surrogacy – for the more than eight months of her incarceration.
Rithy’s lawyer, Ouk Vandeth, yesterday repeated his argument that the trio should not be charged retroactively or for a crime that is not regulated by law.

Sam Everingham, of Families Through Surrogacy, agreed and added that Davis-Charles’s sentence needed to be “considered in the context of there being no clear laws around surrogacy in Cambodia at the time”. He said many Australians would see her punishment as “very harsh given Tammy Davis-Charles’s motivations were simply to help childless couples create a family”.

“The three accused should not have been tried retroactively, but unfortunately I think Tammy Davis-Charles has been treated quite harshly to deter other surrogacy operators in this region and given Cambodia’s sensitivities around adoption and child exploitation.”

After Davis-Charles’s arrest, many agencies uprooted and relocated in Laos – sometimes cutting ties with intended parents and leaving surrogates in limbo. Everingham said Families through Surrogacy is not recommending Southeast Asia for surrogacy in the wake of the verdict.

The government in April announced guidelines – officially distributed to embassies last week – for taking babies born through surrogacy out of the country, a process that involves navigating Cambodia’s courts, a DNA test and giving the Cambodian government annual updates on the child’s physical and mental development.

Chou Bun Eng from the National Committee for Counter Trafficking could not be reached for comment, but last week said that just seven parents had applied to leave the country through the correct guidelines.

The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh said it was “providing ongoing consular assistance . . . to an Australian woman arrested in Cambodia”, but declined to comment further.

MOST VIEWED

  • Siem Reap drain canal now ‘mangrove’ promenade

    A more than half a kilometre long stretch of canal in Siem Reap has been covered and turned into a promenade to attract visitors, said Ly Rasmey, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, on September 16. The new pedestrianised

  • Angkor wildlife, aquarium park still to open October

    The Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium complex about 30km southeast of Siem Reap town with initial total investment of more than $70 million is reportedly still on track for an end-October opening. The park is located on a 100ha plot along National Road 6 in Kbon village, Khchas

  • Final verdicts for Khmer Rouge leaders ‘vital’ for next generation

    Nearly a decade after the commencement of Case 002/02 against Khieu Samphan back in 2014, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is now set to deliver its final verdict for the former Khmer Rouge head of state. The Supreme Court Chamber of the ECCC,

  • Typhoon Noru brings flash floods – 16 dead

    An official warned that that the 16th typhoon of the season, Noru, had brought heavy rains to areas the Mekong River and flooded thousands of homes in the provinces bordering Thailand. As of September 27, the death toll from the flooding had risen to 16. National Committee

  • Defence minister reaffirms Kingdom’s staunch support for One-China policy

    Minister of National Defence General Tea Banh has reaffirmed Cambodia’s unwavering support for the One-China policy. Tea Banh was speaking at the September 20 ceremonial handover of 117 vehicles and other military equipment donated by China’s defence ministry, held at Phnom Chumreay International Military Training

  • Deaths due to ‘lifestyle’ diseases rise in Kingdom

    The Ministry of Health has called on people to pay closer attention to their health to protect themselves from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which it said have caused high rates of deaths in the country. Ministry secretary of state York Sambath made the call at a