A group of pregnant surrogates and five alleged ringleaders  were arrested during a raid on an illegal commercial surrogacy operation in Cambodia on Saturday.

Police said they found thirty-three pregnant Cambodian women who were carrying babies on behalf of Chinese clients in the Phnom Penh raid, Reuters reported

Keo Thea, Phnom Penh anti-trafficking police chief, said one of the five accused, a Chinese national, appeared to have planned the operation. One official, who did not want his identity to be revealed, confirmed local reports the Chinese national was named Liu Quang.

The operation ran out of a villa in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district. Thea said these women were sourced from villages in Kandal, Prey Veng and Kampot provinces.

The five accused would be sent to court Sunday and will be charged under Cambodia’s anti-trafficking laws. Police also seized passports and other documents during the raid.

Thea said each of the 33 women was promised $10,000 for the service.

“They are carrying babies for Chinese nationals,” Thea confirmed adding these women were connected to the operation through brokers. 

The Ministries of Health and of Justice banned Surrogacy in Cambodia in 2016.

“The bad news is that it proves that a hidden international surrogacy industry is still operating in Cambodia,” Rodrigo Montero, gender adviser at the United Nations Development Programme said.

Mom Chandany from Phnom Penh’s Social Affairs Department said the 33 women were sent to the Ministry of Social Affairs after the initial arrest. The department will coordinate with NGOs to support the women.

“We try to protect the baby in the womb,” Chou Bun Eng, permanent vice chair of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking said, adding that in the absence of a law on surrogacy, offenders could be prosecuted under anti-trafficking laws.

surrogacy Australia's Tammy Davis-Charles (R), sits in a police vehicle after appearing for a questioning at the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 21, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Samrang Pring

This is not the first case of its kind in Cambodia.

In November 2016, Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles was arrested for allegedly arranging for more than 20 Cambodian women to carry babies through her fertility clinic in Cambodia, News.com owned by News Corp Australia reported.

She received $8,000 from each couple while surrogates received around $10,000, the Guardian reported.

In August 2017, the nurse was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

“Tammy Davis-Charles was an intermediary between intended parents and Cambodian surrogate mothers,” judge said while delivering the verdict.

Two of her colleagues were also given the same sentence.

In January this year, Cambodia rejected her plea for release on the grounds of eye cancer. She had requested for reduction of her sentence get treatment.

“We uphold the verdict of the court of first instance,” the judge said. “We decide to continue to detain her,” adding the court has “already given a lenient sentence.”