(Bangkok) – Police and local militia in Vientiane, the capital of Lao PDR, are forcibly detaining people who use drugs in a so-called treatment center where they risk beatings and other abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Homeless people, street children, people with mental disabilities, and others deemed “undesirable” are often detained in the center as well, Human Rights watch said.
The 76-page report, “Somsanga’s Secrets: Arbitrary Detention, Physical Abuse, and Suicide in a Lao Drug Detention Center,” examines conditions in the Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Center, which has received a decade of international support from the United States, the United Nations, and other donors. Detainees are held without due process, and many are locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had been held for periods of three months to more than a year. Police and guards are a constant presence, and those who try to escape may be brutally beaten.
“International donors claim that Somsanga is a legitimate drug treatment center,” said Joe Amon, director of health and human rights at Human Rights Watch. “The reality is that people, including children and the homeless, are held in Somsanga against their will, behind barbed wire fences, and are beaten and brutalized.”
“Sahm,” a former detainee, described witnessing a beating of five detainees who had tried to escape: “The detainee guards beat them until they were unconscious. Some were kicked, some [beaten] with a stick of wood.”
Despondent at being locked up and demoralized by being abandoned by their families, some detainees protest their detention by attempting suicide. Former detainees described both attempted and successful suicides involving ingesting glass, swallowing soap, or hanging. Of the 12 former detainees interviewed, five said they had directly witnessed suicides or suicide attempts.
Somsanga’s detainees either were picked up by police or local militia, or sent there by their relatives, under intense pressure to make their villages “drug free.” Beggars, homeless people, street children, and people with mental disabilities are also held in Somsanga, especially before national holidays and international events, Human Rights Watch found.
“Mankon,” who explained he has “been a beggar all my life,” said: “The village militia arrested me because I was out too late: me and my friends were just walking in the street… I was there for nine months.”
Leading up to 25th Southeast Asia (SEA) games in Vientiane in December 2009, the government even established a national telephone hotline for the public to report beggars so they could be picked up and put in Somsanga, official Lao media reported.
“Somsanga is used as a dumping ground,” Amon said. “The most vulnerable and marginalized of Lao society are picked up and held there to ‘clean the streets.’”
Regardless of how they got there, former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were sent to the center without a formal legal hearing or trial and without ever having seen a lawyer or judge. They said that they were unaware of any means to review or appeal the decision to detain them. They were not free to leave.
The government of Lao PDR should permanently close the Somsanga center, Human Rights watch said. The government should immediately conduct a thorough and independent investigation into allegations of arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in Somsanga. The Lao Government should develop voluntary, community-based drug treatment and other social services that respect human rights and comport with international standards.
Since at least 2002, international donors have supported the Somsanga center by constructing or refurbishing buildings, training center staff, and providing vocational training courses in the center. Donor support has come from the US government, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and a handful of other embassies in Vientiane and external organizations. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that the utility of such vocational training courses was obscured by the bleakness and cruelty of months of detention in Somsanga’s crowded cells.
Human Rights Watch urged donors and their implementing agencies to review all assistance to Somsanga to ensure that no funding is supporting policies or programs that violate international human rights law, including the prohibition on arbitrary detention.
“International donors have built the buildings and fences,” Amon said. “They are subsidizing the illegal detention of people the Lao government finds undesirable and wants locked away.”