PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of 32 women who acted as surrogates for Chinese clients were found guilty of human trafficking and handed suspended jail terms with an order to raise their children “well” in Cambodia’s first trial of surrogate mothers.
The 32 were arrested while pregnant in 2018 and, in the absence of laws covering surrogacy, charged under human trafficking laws, drawing criticism from human rights groups who said the women should be treated as victims.
A Chinese man and five Cambodian women arrested alongside the 32, and a Cambodian man and a Chinese woman arrested since, were also sentenced on Monday for their roles in organizing the commercial surrogacy, said court spokesman Y Rin.
The spokesman said the sentences among the 40 convicted ranged from three to 16 years, declining to give a breakdown.
The surrogates - who were set to earn about $10,000 each, more than six times the average annual salary - had their sentences suspended and were ordered to “raise the children well” or be sent to prison.
“The court will monitor them closely on the outside - they are under strict supervision,” Chou Bun Eng, deputy head of the government’s counter-trafficking taskforce, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Cambodia was a popular international destination for couples looking to have babies through commercial surrogacy, a practice made illegal in 2016 after an uptick in the trade following a ban by neighboring Thailand the previous year.
However, a proposed law covering the trade is stuck at draft stage, leaving the 32 women - and at least 14 more arrested since them - to face human trafficking laws that carry jail terms up to 20 years.
“The authorities ... worsened their situation by charging them under laws that were not designed for their situation,” said Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
Sopheap said the law should not criminalize surrogates who are “most likely at the sharp end of various economic and political hardships that caused them to make the decision”.
“By effectively conditioning them to raise a child, the Cambodian authorities are revictimizing an already vulnerable group,” Sopheap said.
After their arrest in July 2018, the 32 surrogates were detained for five months before being released on bail on compassionate grounds, on the condition that they look after the babies, some of whom were born in detention.
Chea Sophy, a lawyer for the 32 women, said it was unclear if any of his clients would appeal against the court’s ruling.
Reporting by Matt Blomberg with additional reporting by Mech Dara; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org
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