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Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Thirty-three pregnant Cambodian women hired to act as surrogate mothers who were arrested last month when police raided the illegal business were formally charged Friday with surrogacy and human trafficking offences, a court official said.

The women were charged Friday under a law that specifically targets surrogacy as well as another covering a person who sells, buys or exchanges another person for the purpose of moving the person across borders, said Ly Sophana, spokesman of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Acting as an intermediary between an adoptive parent and a pregnant woman carries a penalty of one to six months in jail. The human trafficking offence is punishable by seven to 15 years' imprisonment.

A Chinese man and four Cambodian women accused of managing the business were charged last week with the same offences. The Chinese man allegedly hired the women, who after they were arrested were put under the care of the social welfare ministry.

Cambodia outlawed surrogacy services in 2016 as the country was becoming a popular destination for would-be foreign parents seeking women to give birth to their children.

Developing countries are popular for surrogacy because costs are much lower than in countries such as the United States and Australia, where surrogate services can cost around $150,000. The surrogacy business boomed in Cambodia after it was put under tight restrictions in neighbouring Thailand. There also were crackdowns in India and Nepal. After Cambodia's crackdown, the trade shifted to neighbouring Laos.

In July last year, a Cambodian court sentenced an Australian woman and two Cambodian associates to 1 1/2 years in prison for providing commercial surrogacy services.

AP