October 11, 2011


Lao PDR does not allow international human rights organizations to freely conduct research or monitor human rights concerns in the country. NGOs and others visiting drug detention centers are rarely, if ever, able to speak privately with detainees or see all parts of a government drug detention center. As a result, obtaining and verifying information about human rights violations in Lao drug detention centers presents great challenges. There is reluctance in Lao PDR to discuss drug use in general, and Somsanga in particular. While former detainees of Somsanga are freer to talk openly about their experiences than those still in detention, many are still fearful of being taken back to the center and are wary of the additional risk created by talking to human rights organizations.

This report is based on information collected during three weeks of field research conducted in Lao PDR in late 2010. Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth, confidential interviews with 12 people recently detained in Somsanga drug detention center.[1] All 12 had been in detention within two years of the date of their interview with Human Rights Watch. All come from Vientiane.

Of the 12 former detainees whose testimony forms the basis of this report, four were children at the time of their detention, including one who was a girl at the time of her detention.[2] All four children were adolescents, although their precise ages have not been included in the report in order to protect their identities.

All interviewees provided verbal informed consent to participate. Individuals were assured that they could end the interview at any time or decline to answer any questions without consequence. Interviews were semi-structured and covered a number of topics related to illicit drug use, arrest, and the conditions of detention. To protect their confidentiality and safety, interviewees have been given pseudonyms and in some cases certain other identifying information has been withheld.

Information from these former detainees was generally consistent in terms of the forms, severity, and frequency of abuses reported.

Human Rights Watch also spoke to two people who had been held in Somsanga prior to 2009. Their testimony, largely consistent with the testimony of more recent detainees, is not included in this report because their periods of detention fall outside this report’s timeframe.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed eight current or former staff members of international organizations who have knowledge and experience regarding the situation of people who use drugs in Lao PDR. Testimony they provided has been included in this report.

Where available, secondary sources—including official Lao media and reports from government sources or other organizations—has been included to corroborate information from former detainees and current or former staff members of international organizations.

In July 2011, Human Rights Watch wrote to the head of the Lao Commission on Drug Control (LCDC) to request information on the Somsanga center and solicit its response to violations documented in this report. This correspondence is attached in Annex 1.

In July 2011, Human Rights Watch also contacted 10 donors and implementers who have reportedly funded or implemented programs in Somsanga drug detention center. A version of this correspondence is attached in Annex 2.


[1] Human Rights Watch uses the term detainees to refer to those who reported that they were detained against their will as well as those who entered the centers on a voluntary basis. The term detainee is appropriate for those who enter on a voluntary basis because once inside the centers they are not free to leave.

[2] The word “child” is used in this report to refer to anyone under the age of 18 and “girl” to a female under the age of 18. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines as a child “every human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier,” art. 1, adopted November 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force September 2, 1990). Lao PDR acceded to the CRC on May 8, 1991.