October 11, 2011

II. Abuses

No Due Process

The police were my lawyer.
—Pacheek, a child released from Somsanga in mid-2010[59]

The Somsanga center operates entirely outside the Lao justice system. Lao PDR’s national drug law states that “[d]rug addicts are to be considered as victims who need to be treated.”[60] The law simply provides: “The [rehabilitation] centres receive drugs addicts to be treated [as] sent by the officers and families or on voluntary [admission] of the drug addicts.”[61]

However the drug law contains no process that officers and families must follow before a person can be detained, and there are no apparent procedural safeguards prior to detention in centers. None of the persons whom Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report had seen a lawyer, been brought before a judge, or been sent to a court prior to detention in Somsanga. Just as the law requires no judicial basis or oversight of any decision to detain an individual, there does not appear to be any legal right or means to review or appeal against detention.[62] This absence of a legal framework for detention renders detentions arbitrary, and as such unlawful under international law.

One member of an international organization who is familiar with drug issues in Lao PDR explained:

Somsanga is not a center where you decide to go of your own will; people are usually “encouraged” to go by the local authorities and family members. I'm not aware of any legal process for the placement of drug users in Somsanga.[63]

Another person working on drug issues in Lao PDR gave a similar description of the lack of due process:

Police arrest someone and bring them to Somsanga, or families approach the village head and he decrees that the person needs to be brought to Somsanga. In a very few cases, the families bring their children to Somsanga and pay for it.To my knowledge there is no defined legal process [for admission], which also means no possible appeal [against the decision to detain].[64]

Other assessments of drug detention centers in Lao PDR have reported the practice of rounding up drug users and detaining them without legal review in detention centers.[65]

In July 2011, Human Rights Watch wrote to the head of the Lao Commission on Drug Control seeking, among other information, details on the admission process to Somsanga, and particularly the number of people who had legal representation during the process of the decision to detain them as well as the number of people who appealed against such decisions to detain them. By the time this report went to print Human Rights Watch had not received a response.

Locked Up as Treatment

Detention [has not] been recognized by science as treatment for drug use disorders.
— WHO/UNODC, “Principles of Drug Dependence Treatment,” March 2008[66]

According to the glossy pamphlet about Somsanga published by the Lao government, the US Embassy and UNODC, “treatment” in the center covers three phases: drug detoxification, rehabilitation, and follow-up.

The drug detoxification phase “lasts for about 42 days depending on the addiction level of the patient,” during which “counseling consultation and psychological support treatment will be provided for the patients and their families.” Rehabilitation “lasts for 3-12 months depending on the severity of the patient’s drug problems” and involves “group counseling consultations” and “provision of vocational and occupational training activities.” Follow-up involves “encourag[ing] the discharged patient to reintegrate into society,” and offering him or her employment or further education.[67]

In reality, treatment at Somsanga is available only to those detainees whose families pay for it. Staying in the “upper” buildings near the clinic costs money. Former detainees reported that the cost of “treatment” and “rehabilitation” in the “upper” buildings varied from a one-off payment to the center of 1,000,000 kip (approximately $125) for three months to a monthly payment of between 300,000 to 500,000 kip (approximately $38 to $63) for as long as the family requests the person be held in the “upper” buildings.[68] According to Pueksapa:

The clinic building is clean. The food is nicer and there its lots of it. They have TV and can do a lot of activities. In the clinic building there were 70-80 people. In the lower buildings there were about 600 people with a hard life.[69]

While the number of people in the “lower buildings” fluctuates over time, the compounds are crowded with detainees. Estimates by former detainees of the total number of people held at any one time in the “lower buildings” ranged from 600 to 1,400.[70] This wide range of total detainees may reflect fluctuations of detainee population over time. The Lao Commission on Drug Control has reported that the detainee population in Somsanga has fluctuated between 1,100 to 2,600 detainees per year between 2003 and 2009.[71] Management staff from the center reported that in mid-2011 there were 1,087 detainees.[72]

The essence of drug “treatment” in Somsanga is detention.[73] Of the 12 former detainees interviewed for this report, eight explicitly stated that they had not wanted to be in Somsanga.[74] Some estimated that, based on their interactions with fellow detainees over many months of shared detention, most detainees did not want to be there.[75]

According to one staff member of an international organization who is familiar with drug issues in Lao PDR:

As usual with these centers in the region, the decision to send people [to Somsanga] is based more on security and public order [concerns] than the need for an evidenced-based health intervention.[76]

Once inside Somsanga, detainees live in a punitive and heavily controlled environment. According to former detainees, a bell rings at pre-established times during the day to signal that detainees must return to their cells. In a standard 24-hour weekday, detainees spend the majority of the day lying or sitting in a locked room with other detainees. Estimates of the number of detainees in each room in the “lower buildings” ranged from 45 to 60.[77]

Neung, who was a child when released from Somsanga in mid-2010, described a normal day:

From Monday to Friday, they ring the bell at 6 a.m. Then you have to exercise for about 45 minutes. It’s like running on the spot and calisthenics. We finish with push-ups, which are tiring. After that, we have rice soup. It’s just a fist-full of rice. After breakfast you can watch T.V. or sleep. At 11:30 you go back [to the cell] and they lock the door. Between 11:30 and 1 o’clock you sleep or sit. It is boring and you are hungry because the food is not enough. At one o’clock you are released from the room. At 3:20 pm they let you eat dinner, then at 4 o’clock they lock the door until next morning. There is not much to do in the rooms, just sitting.[78]

Ungkhan, who was detained in late 2009, described a similar routine of strict rules and being locked in the cells for long periods of time.

There are so many rules. No smoking, no talking in a large group, wash your clothes at the right time, you cannot talk at night when the room is locked. You must wait until the right time to shower. In general, it’s like prison: you stay under control, you don’t feel relaxed. The door is opened for breakfast. At 11:30 you get food, at 12 o’clock you go back to the cell and it’s locked until 2 o’clock. At 4 o’clock you eat dinner, you can eat in the cell. At 4:30 p.m. they close [the doors] again until the morning.[79]

Time spent in the cells is even longer on the weekends: detainees spend more than 20 hours a day in locked rooms. Neung explained that on weekends, doors to the cells were opened from six to eight in the morning, and three to four thirty in the afternoon. “It is depressing but after a while you get used to it,” he added, with a note of resignation.[80]

When let out of their cells, detainees in the “lower buildings” are still inside a walled compound situated inside a fenced center. “It’s boring,” Pahat said. “You can’t go where you want to. [In Somsanga] you’re behind a wall.”[81]

In 2007 the US State department criticized “indefinite” periods of detention in Lao drug detention centers.[82] Saow, who was released in late 2010, explained that he was held for a year as it was his second time in Somsanga: “I wanted to leave but it’s the rule: first time [in Somsanga] six months, second time one year.”[83]

However other former detainees described highly varied periods of detention: length of time in Somsanga ranged from three months to fifteen months, with no clear time periods for those in the center on their first, second, or third occasion. Pahat explained that he spent three months in the first time, six months the second time, and eight months the third time.[84] Ateet, in his early 30s, explained he was in Somsanga “not so long” the first time, six months the second time and over 14 months the third time.[85] Pueksapa was released after being detained for nine months, his first time.[86] Paet was detained for fifteen months, his first time.[87]

Former detainees considered that detention in Somsanga undermines the aims of drug dependency treatment. Ungkhan, in his early 30s, explained:

The way they do this is unfair, to take people to Somsanga without their consent. They force you to go there against your will, so you are unhappy because it’s not good to stay in Somsanga. In my opinion, people are angrier and more aggressive after they are there. I saw this in the people I knew. There are very few who have been to rehab and got better. Most are worst after rehab: it will make people who maybe behave a little bit bad a lot worse.[88]

Somsanga has group classes to discuss drug use, as well as vocational training classes in subjects such as cooking, computers, handicrafts, and English language. As noted above, international donors fund many of these activities, which are for detainees of both the “upper” and “lower” buildings. Former detainees reported that, once in Somsanga, attending vocational training classes was voluntary.[89]

However access to these classes is still only possible if the beneficiaries are held in detention. According to some former detainees, any possible benefits of such classes are subsumed by the overwhelmingly negative experience of being detained. Sahm told Human Rights Watch that such classes often did not contribute to ending drug use because of the resentment caused by being locked up.

They do classes about drugs on Mondays and Fridays, morning and night. The teachers showed a movie and then taught us. They try to teach not to use drugs, that it isn’t good to use [drugs], while showing that normal people have a good future. I don’t think the classes helped me stop using drugs. Some families think that if they put their kids in there they will stop using but I don’t think so. If people are in Somsanga unwillingly, Somsanga will make the situation worse. They are there against their will and the feelings of revenge toward the family and those who put them there go to their heart. Some people use more drugs when they come out of Somsanga.[90]

Vocational training courses suffer from the same underlying problem. Pahat, who was released in mid-2010, told Human Rights Watch that he chose not to participate in any vocational training classes because he thought his participation would risk prolonging his detention.

It’s a bad life in Somsanga: there was not enough food and not much to do. I was not happy there and I wanted to get out all the time. They have classes but I didn’t do them because I knew I would be out [soon]. If you attend classes you must stay until you finish the course—you can’t leave after just a few months.[91]

Pueksapa, who was held for nine months, told Human Rights Watch that he ultimately yielded to the pressure of village authorities and his mother to go to Somsanga because of vocational training classes. He was detained in the “lower buildings” and was accompanied by police when he went for vocational training in other buildings. He explained:

I signed because they said, “[If] you go, it will be a new experience. You have English language classes [in Somsanga]. In Somsanga it is good.” I come from a poor family. I thought, “If I go I have the opportunity to study English and cook.” So I went. If you stay five months you finish your course: I finished. I have a cooking certificate from Somsanga.

Nonetheless, he was adamant that the cooking class he attended did not compensate for the suffering he experienced during his detention in Somsanga.

It wasn’t like I expected: it’s hard in there. There are lots of people and not enough food. It was hard to sleep there because in my room there were 60 people. There was not enough water for the showers, only a few minutes to shower every day. It’s horrible inside: there is no freedom there. I would never do it again. I would never suggest people to go to Somsanga.[92]

Suicides at Somsanga

The foreigners [that visit Somsanga] don’t know about the beatings or the suicides.
—Paet, a child when first detained[93]

Of the 12 former detainees interviewed for this report, five reported having directly witnessed suicides or suicide attempts by fellow detainees during their detention.

Sahm, who was released in mid-2010, told Human Rights Watch that he saw a fellow detainee who had committed suicide by ingesting glass.

Blood came out his mouth and nose. He ate glass from a sauce bottle or from a Pepsi bottle. They put him in a plastic sheet and put it in front of the building where the police stay. I saw the body.[94]

Pacheek, a child when released in mid-2010, told Human Rights Watch that a man in the same cell as him committed suicide by hanging.

[In] the room I stayed in, a man committed suicide. He hung himself in the doorway while others were sleeping. Everyone woke up and saw this. He was angry at his family and depressed because he came in at the same time as his younger brother, who left before him. I saw him. He used a cord from some shorts. He had black jeans and a red t-shirt on. He had his tongue out.[95]

Maesa told Human Rights Watch that during her six months in detention, she saw two suicides and one suicide attempt.

Some people think that to die is better than staying there. Some tried to kill themselves and their lives are saved. I saw one girl from the “lower buildings.” She ate fabric detergent because she wanted to die. She was upset her family left her in this place. She didn’t die because the doctor found her and cleaned her stomach. Then they took care of her and told her not to try and kill herself. Others they die. Two men committed suicide when I was there. They hanged themselves. Then the staff brought the bodies up to the clinic. It was two different times, the two deaths. I saw the dead bodies.[96]

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they believed, based on their own experiences of being detained and interactions with their fellow detainees, that people attempted suicide because of the anger and loneliness caused by detention in Somsanga. Sahm—who witnessed the suicide of a fellow detainee by ingesting glass—said:

There are many reasons people try and kill themselves. People who are there unwillingly after their families send them are depressed. Sometimes the family lies to them about the length of time in Somsanga. Others are without families so they have no one to come and visit.[97]

Tunva told Human Rights Watch that he saw one fellow detainee attempt suicide by swallowing fabric detergent in January or February 2010: “I think they try and kill themselves because they feel lonely, they have no one to come and visit them.”[98] Paet, a child when he was detained, explained that the detainees who attempt suicide “are angry because they want their families to take them out of Somsanga but their families want to give them more rehab.”[99]

States have a responsibility to account for every death in custody, including suicides. Whether the state bears responsibility for a suicide that takes place in detention will depend on the extent to which in the circumstances the authorities should have been aware of the risk of suicide and what measures were put in place to mitigate that risk. Where a risk is evident and the state did not take appropriate preventative steps, then the state will bear responsibility for that death in custody.[100]

As far as one former detainee interviewed by Human Rights Watch was aware, authorities running Somsanga have responded to suicides in the center by making infrastructural changes. Paet explained that, “Some [detainees], they jumped from the buildings. Now in the buildings you can’t jump because they have protection grills on the balconies.” Other changes were implemented after a man hung himself with a towel in a bathroom. “No one saw him do it,” said Paet. “In that time they had doors on the bathroom. After this they took the doors off the bathrooms.”[101]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued guidance for authorities in charge of detainees in how to screen for, prevent, and respond to suicide and attempted suicide in detention settings.[102] WHO has noted that detention itself creates a risk of suicide, as it is a stressful event that deprives even healthy people of important resources.[103] WHO’s guidance describes means to screen for suicide risk at intake, means of observation post-intake, adequate monitoring of suicidal detainees, mental health treatment, and mechanisms to review internal policies when suicides do occur.It is not apparent that the Somsanga authorities have adopted any of the recommended steps outlined in such guidance.

In its correspondence with international donors and implementing agencies, Human Rights Watch asked whether those organizations were aware of any reports of deaths in custody (including suicide), and any formal investigations into such deaths, as well as any efforts taken to prevent further suicides.

As noted above, Human Rights Watch had received no response from the US Department of State’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the US Embassy in Vientiane, the Japanese Embassy in Vientiane, or the Australian Embassy in Vientiane by the time this report went to print. The Singaporean Embassy, the Singapore International Foundation, the German Embassy and the German Development Agency stated that they had not received or documented such reports. UNODC confirmed:

One case of death in custody is known and there was anecdotal information about cases of attempted suicide. UNODC staff have heard of cases of attempted suicide from the medical staff at Somsanga center.[104]

The UNODC correspondence did not identify any further information (such as an investigation by the center or any steps taken by UNODC) in response to this death in custody or incidents of attempted suicide.

Ill-Treatment of Detainees

Inhumane or degrading practices and punishment should never be a part of treatment of drug dependence.
—WHO/UNODC, “Principles of Drug Dependence Treatment,” March 2008[105]

As noted above, a number of international donor organizations and their implementing agencies visit Somsanga on a regular basis in order to monitor their projects or carry out project activities. Somsanga’s management appears to be conscious of its image when foreigners visit the center. As Ungkhan explained:

On days when the foreigners came [to the center] the police warned us in the morning: “Today we are going to have some guests so make the rooms clean, clean all the rubbish, behave yourselves.” We had to wear nice clothes and make everything clean.[106]

None of the former detainees told Human Rights Watch that staff directly beat them or other detainees. On the contrary Ungkhan reported that “it is not allowed to hit people inside [Somsanga]: even the police can’t hit and beat [detainees].”[107]

However, the rule against corporal punishment appears to be easily circumvented. In practice, police at Somsanga delegate authority to punish detainees for infringing center rules to powerful detainees.[108] These detainees carry out most of the day-to-day control of other detainees and enforce the rules of the center. Saow, who was released in late 2010 after a year in Somsanga, explained:

The room captains control everyone. The room captains work for the police. They are those who show good behavior and will tell [police] if people escape. The police tell us the rules and the room captains make sure we follow them.[109]

Pahat, who was released in mid-2010 after eight months in Somsanga, told Human Rights Watch that room captains beat other detainees as punishment for infringing center rules.

There is a rule of ‘no hitting’ but the room captains still do. If you try to escape or fight, you are put in a cell and at about five or six o’clock the room captains come and punish you. I saw room captains beat people inside the cells: the person had to kneel and hold their hands behind their head and then the room captains started kicking them. I saw beatings like this all the time.[110]

During the course of researching this report, six former detainees told Human Rights Watch that room captains meted out violence on the direct orders of center staff. Pueksapa said he saw room captains beat two detainees at the command of center police.

If detainees are unsuccessful escaping, they will be hit. I saw this: two detainees climbed up the wall and we all ran to the second floor of the building to watch what happened next. They ran through the field but they didn’t manage to escape: the room captains grabbed them and beat them. The police told the room captains, “Punish them!” Then the room captains beat them.[111]
Pueksapa added: “[The room captains] can do whatever they want.”
 

Pacheek, who was released in mid-2010 after six months in Somsanga, also reported witnessing eight or nine room captains beat two detainees who tried to escape. The detainees were then put “in a small cell for one month with no family visits.”[112]

Sahm, who was also released in mid-2010, reported a similar beating of five detainees who were unsuccessful in their escape attempt.

The room captains beat them until they were unconscious. Some were kicked, some [beaten] with a stick of wood. The police were standing nearby and saw this. The police told the room captains to punish them because the police would be held responsible for any successful escapes. [113]

Paet, who was released in early 2010, reported he was beaten by fellow detainees for fighting and that staff had given the orders for the beating.

If people broke rules they were beaten or kicked. It happened to me. I was punished for fighting. The captains of the two rooms argued, so the two rooms were fighting. In my room there were 40 people and half went to fight. The ones in the room who didn’t fight had to smack the face of those who had been fighting. The police said to the people hitting me, “Punish him, punish him!” The police were watching. It felt very painful. I was bleeding from my lip and my face was swollen.

While Somsanga center staff did not beat detainees, interviewees told Human Rights Watch that staff ordered individuals who had infringed center rules to be punished in ways that constituted inhuman and degrading treatment. After the beating described above, Paet and his fellow detainees were punished:

They sent us to the septic tank. We had to take the shit to the main garbage place. Then we had to clean the shit out of the septic tank with water. It was disgusting. Some were vomiting and others were dizzy. We had to stand in the shit. There were worms in it.[114]

Tunva, who was released in mid-2010 after four months in Somsanga, told Human Rights Watch that he saw staff punish one detainee who was caught trying to escape by forcing him to stand in the sun for hours.

The room captains seized one person and he was handcuffed to the pole of the volleyball net. They seized him at one o’clock and they didn’t let him go until five or six o’clock. It was hot and he was suffering. It was the police, not the room captains, who handcuffed him. The foreigners [who visit Somsanga] didn’t see this: they don’t let the foreigners see things like this. [115]

At least one other assessment of drug detention centers in Lao PDR has published reports of detainee beatings by staff and detainee guards in Somsanga.[116]

In its correspondence with international donors and implementing agencies, Human Rights Watch asked whether those organizations were aware of any reports of ill-treatment of detainees. As noted above, Human Rights Watch had received no response from the US Department of State’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the US Embassy in Vientiane, the Japanese Embassy in Vientiane, and the Australian Embassy in Vientiane by the time this report went to print. The Singaporean Embassy, the Singapore International Foundation, the German Embassy and the German Development Agency stated that they had not received or documented such reports. UNODC confirmed:

UNODC staff have not received reports that staff and detainee guards are alleged to have physically abused people as punishment of infringements of centre rules. Centre regulations prohibit such behavior.[117]

No Objective Basis for Detentions

As indicated above, Lao law does not—in theory or in practice—provide any meaningful protections against arbitrary detention of individuals for purported “treatment” and “rehabilitation.” The drug law contains no procedural safeguards prior to such detention.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the head of the Lao Commission on Drug Control seeking, among other information, details on the admission process to Somsanga, and particularly the number of people who had legal representation during the decision process to detain them, as well as the number of people who appealed against such decisions to detain them. By the time this report went to print, Human Rights Watch had not received a response.

“Drug-Free” Villages

Officially, the government of Lao PDR is working to make the country “drug free” by 2015, in line with an ASEAN-wide political commitment. [118] The Lao national drug control master plan states the nation’s “goal of creating a happy drug free, prosperous society governed by the rule of law for all Lao people and work towards as the vision of a drug-free ASEAN (2015).” [119]

Village officials themselves are under pressure from government administrators to declare their villages “drug-free.” According to the drugs law, one of the primary methods of combating illegal drugs is:

To strengthen [the] development [of] villages free from cultivation of drug producing plants and from drug producing, processing, abusing, trafficking and distributing.[120]

Much of the pressure on families to send people who use drugs to Somsanga is exerted by village officials, and is backed up by village militia (tamnaut baan) who detain drug users. Along with their parents, it is often the head of the village (nai baan) who is responsible for signing forms to send a person to the center.

Official media avidly track the progress of efforts of officials in villages around Vientiane in efforts to achieve a “drug-free” environment. For example, according to the Vientiane Times, Haysok village (near Vientiane) was preparing to declare itself drug-free in 2006.

The village head explained that at present village officials are following up on two people who they suspect are drug users. If the suspicions are correct then village officials will reveal the problem to the user’s parents and immediately re-educate the user about drugs. He added that if they continue to use drugs village officials will cooperate with the user’s parents in sending them to the Somsanga Rehabilitation Centre for treatment.[121]

Similarly, Phonthan Tai village (near Vientiane) was also hoping to declare itself drug-free in 2009.

Drug use is falling in Phonthan Tai village, Vientiane, but police are currently tracking seven suspected users in an effort to declare their village drug free, according to village authorities. “We are following the suspects and if they are found using drugs officials will work with their parents to send them to Somsanga Rehabilitation Centre for treatment,” said the Deputy Head of Phonthan Tai village.[122]

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that the procedure prior to their detention in Somsanga consisted of the simple process of being detained by police or the village militia (tamnaut baan) and taken to the center.[123] Pahat spent six months in Somsanga and explained:

The village militia detained me. They had been observing me for a long time. They said nothing but handcuffed me when I was inside my house. They caught me at 9 p.m., then I arrived at Somsanga around 9:30 p.m. I never saw a lawyer nor a court, I never filled out a form or signed or thumb-printed anything. They gave me no interview when I arrived. Of course I didn’t want to go: they just pushed me inside Somsanga because I was using drugs.[124]

Paet was held in Somsanga as a child. He was detained by village militia, who took him to the office of the head of the village (nai baan).

There were five people in the office with my mother and father. The village official said, “You’ve been arrested so many times, it’s time to go to rehab.” They asked my mother and father if they agreed and they did. They were losing face [i.e. felt humiliated] so they had to follow what the police said. They paid 500,000 kip [around $62] just once. I did not want to go—I had heard Somsanga was like a jail.[125]

Detaining People Who Use Drugs Infrequently or Irregularly

Another consequence of the absence of procedural protections is that village officials and family members sometimes request and pay Somsanga to detain individuals who have used drugs infrequently or irregularly. As a consequence, people may be given “treatment” in the absence of an underlying condition that actually requires treatment.

Pacheek is a child who spent six months in Somsanga. Family members committed him to the center after catching him sniffing glue on two occasions.

I used glue twice. The first time I tried it with friends, then I tried it on my own and got high. My uncle saw me and reported me to my mother and father, then a day later the village militia came to arrest me. The village militia took me straight to Somsanga. My mother and father signed a form in the village head’s office. I said no, I didn’t want to go but they said I had to go because I smoked glue. I did not want to go but I am a kid, so what could I do?[126]

Other former detainees reported detention for infrequent drug use. Maesa is a child who spent six months in Somsanga. She was put there by her parents, who told the head of her village she had used drugs.

At that time I was with my friends and the head of the village came and told me to come to the office. The head of the village said I was going on vacation but actually he took me to the district jail for two days. I was upset, thinking, “Why is my family doing this to me? Did I make a big mistake? Why are they punishing me like this?” I was depressed, crying. My mother came to visit me in the district jail and applied for me to go to Somsanga…. [Then] my mother took me to Somsanga and in the Somsanga clinic my mother signed. Then they checked my pee and made an interview: “How long did you use? How often?” That’s all they asked. I said I did try ya ma (an amphetamine type stimulant) three times.

Her family paid Somsanga for medicine and also for residence in rooms near the clinic.

My family took me [to Somsanga] to change my behavior. They didn’t want me to be going out all the time, going out with boys. They wanted to change me to be a good girl, not a party girl who stays out. I didn’t feel addicted. I hadn’t used on other occasions—I had used drugs just three times.[127]

Pacheek and Maesa both received six months of detention with a course of three tablets (twice daily) for the first a month-and-a-half, and classes about drugs.[128] Maesa attended a vocational training class, Pacheek did not. But despite not being dependent on drugs, Pacheek’s and Maesa’s received the same “treatment” and “rehabilitation” as other detainees.

Detaining Other “Undesirable” People

The Lao government uses the Somsanga center as a convenient dumping ground for populations that are deemed “undesirable” by police or the village militia. Former detainees described other detainees as including alcoholics, people with mental disabilities, petty thieves, homeless people, and beggars.[129] Street children are also detained in Somsanga.[130] Former detainees also reported that the center detained Hmong people who did not appear to fall into any of the previous categories.[131]

Former detainees estimated, based on their contact with fellow detainees during periods of detention, that the number of detainees who are not drug users is considerable. Ungkhan estimated that 1 in 5 of fellow detainees were not drug users. Maesa estimated people who were not drug users were 1 in 3. According to Pueksapa, up to half the people in Somsanga were not drug users.[132] This wide range of estimates may indicate difficulties in categorizing detainees, or indicate different detainee populations at different times.

Mankon, a man in his early 20s, told Human Rights Watch that he has “been a beggar all my life.” He is familiar with Somsanga, having been detained there on three occasions. He described a perfunctory process when he was picked up, most recently in 2009.

The village militia arrested me because I was out too late: me and my friends were just walking in the street in [name withheld] village. They arrested all of us. They said, “What are you doing here? Looking for something to steal?” The village militia took me to the office of the village head, then to the district jail in [name withheld] district and then to Somsanga… There were over 30 people who were beggars like me in there. I was there for nine months.[133]
According to Maesa:
[In Somsanga] there are drug users, [but also] beggars, petty thieves, alcoholics, homeless people, Hmong. Some are in because they are fighting in the street and the police pick them up and put them in there. Others are homeless and walking in the street at night. Before some important days [holidays or state functions], they clean the streets of those kinds of people. Sometimes they might bring a beggar woman with her two or three kids for about a week to Somsanga, just to punish them. It’s unfair: they are already homeless and don’t do anything wrong. Why do they have to take them to rehab?[134]

Pacheek told of similar types of people detained in the center:

There were 45 people in my room: only men. Ya ma[an amphetamine type stimulant] users were the most common. They [also] had crazy people—two older people—in my room. They didn’t shower and were dirty. They didn’t understand when people talked to them. There were beggars as well. There were alcoholics [and] the Hmong also stay in there…. They all do the same every day, just sitting doing nothing.[135]

Ateet, who was released in mid-2010, explained that when he was held in Somsanga, people were swept up off the streets by police prior to Lao PDR’s National Day (December 2) in 2009.

There were about 30 or 40 [homeless] people [while I was in Somsanga]. I asked them why the police arrest them if they are not drug users. They said, “We don’t know why we were put inside. We were just hanging out at night time and the police came and put us in trucks and brought us to Somsanga.” They were put in separate rooms, one for men and one for women. Some were children…. They were there about one month because they had no family or relatives to come and contact the center. If they have money they can get out in one or two days.[136]

According to former detainees, street children are among those detained in Somsanga. Children are entitled to additional protections against arbitrary detention.[137] However a number of former detainees described being detained alongside children 10 years old or younger.[138] According to Ungkhan:

There were about seven children in my room but maybe about 100 children altogether. The youngest was about seven years old. The children are not drug users but homeless, like beggars on the street. One is a boy from my village who I recognized. He has no mother or father and they just dumped him there.[139]

The detention of homeless people and beggars in Somsanga has been widely and publicly reported. For example, in February, 2004 the Vientiane Times reported that over 30 beggars were held at Somsanga in order to clean the streets prior to the ASEAN Tourism Forum meeting in Vientiane.[140] Again, in 2007, the official Lao news agency KPL reported that in the four months prior to February 2007, 79 beggars had been sent to Somsanga.[141] In April 2009, the Vientiane Times reported that in the previous three months, some 40 beggars had been sent to Somsanga.[142]

In the lead up to the 25th Southeast Asia games, held in Vientiane in December 2009, Vientiane authorities established call-in numbers for people to report beggars, to ensure “orderliness” during the games.

Vientiane Labour and Social Welfare Service has assigned direct call numbers for tracing beggars to ensure keeping orderliness within Vientiane capital during the 25th SEA Games which will fall on 9- 18 December this year. Individuals can inform village authorities, security officers stationed in nearby village clusters or dial 021 21 26 09 or 020 57 22 073 and 56 17 044 if they see beggars within the capital, said on Tuesday Mr. Khonesavanh Phommadouang, Head of Social Welfare Division, Vientiane Labour and Social Welfare Service… According to Mr. Khonesavanh, beggars who are arrested will be sent back to their hometowns or to a detention centre at Somsanga village which currently houses 22 beggars.[143]

Former detainees in Somsanga held during the period of the SEA games confirmed they were detained alongside beggars. Pahat, who was released in mid-2010, explained: “There were maybe about 20 people [picked off the streets during the SEA games] and they were [in Somsanga] about three months…. It’s crazy to think they were arrested! The government tried to show that Laos has no beggars.”[144]

It does not appear that the detention of homeless people and beggars in Somsanga abated since the 2009 SEA games. In February 2011, Vientiane Mai newspaper reported that 66 beggars were sent to Somsanga during 2010, of whom only 24 were considered drug dependent.[145]

In its correspondence with international donors and implementing agencies, Human Rights Watch asked whether those organizations were aware of any reports of beggars, homeless people, street children, and people with mental disabilities being detained in Somsanga, and the legal basis for such detentions. As described above, reports of the detention of homeless people and street children in Somsanga have been published in official Lao media, in both English and Lao, since at least 2004.

Human Rights Watch had received no response from the US Department of State’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the US Embassy in Vientiane, the Japanese Embassy in Vientiane, and the Australian Embassy in Vientiane by the time this report went to print. The Singapore International Foundation did not address the question in its reply to Human Rights Watch. UNODC, the Singaporean Embassy, the German Embassy and the German Development Agency stated that they had not received or documented reports of beggars, homeless street children, or people with mental disabilities detained in Somsanga.

 

[59] Human Rights Watch interview, Vientiane, late 2010.

[60] Law on Drugs, No. 10/NA, adopted by the National Assembly December 25, 2007, art. 5(5).

[61]Law on Drugs, art 41.

[62] Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Lao P.D.R. is a party provides that, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention [or] be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as are established by law.” ICCPR, adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, acceded to by Lao P.D.R. on September 25, 2009. International law grants a detainee the right to challenge the lawfulness of his or her detention by petitioning an appropriate judicial authority to review whether the grounds for detention are lawful, reasonable and necessary: ICCPR, art. 9 (4).

[63] Human Rights Watch interview with staff member of an international organization, September 2011.

[64] Human Rights Watch interview with staff member of an international organization, September 2011.

[65] See, for example, N. Thomson, “Detention as Treatment: Detention of Methamphetamine Users in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand,” The Nossal Institute for Global Health and the Open Society Institute, March 2010, p. 44, http://www.soros.org/initiatives/health/focus/ihrd/articles_publications/publications/detention-as-treatment-20100301 (accessed May 12, 2011).

[66] WHO/UNODC, “Principles of Drug Dependence Treatment,” March 2008, p. 14, www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/principles_drug_dependence_treatment.pdf (accessed August 13, 2011).

[67]Government of Lao PDR, Embassy of the United States, UNODC, “Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Center, Ban Somsanga, Saysetha District, Vientiane Capital, LAO PDR,” pamphlet, undated, copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

[68] Human Rights Watch interviews with Ungkhan and Maesa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview with Pueksapa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[70] Human Rights Watch interview with Ateet and Pahat, Vientiane, late 2010.

[71] “Presentation by participant of LCDC at the UNODC Global SMART Programme Regional Workshop,” Lao Commission on Drug Control, Bangkok Thailand, August 5-6, 2010, copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

[72] “Drug Treatment and Vocational Training Center, Vientiane Capital, Laos,” Oukeo Keovoravong, deputy director for treatment and psychology of [Somsanga] center, presentation at Regional Seminar on ATS Treatment and Care, Kunming China, April 18-21, 2011, copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

[73] Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) provides for the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health: G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), entered into force on January 3, 1976 and acceded to by Lao P.D.R. on February 13, 2007. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the U.N. body responsible for monitoring compliance with the ICESCR, has stated that a state’s health facilities, goods and services should be culturally and ethically acceptable, scientifically and medically appropriate, and of good quality. U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14: The right to the highest attainable standard of health, November 8, 2000, para. 12.

[74] Human Rights Watch interviews with Tunva, Mankon, Paet, Sahm, Maesa, Pahat, Pacheek, and Neung, Vientiane, late 2010.

[75] Human Rights Watch interviews with Neung and Sahm, Vientiane, late 2010.

[76] Human Rights interview with staff member of an international organization, September 2011.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with Ungkhan and Paet, Vientiane, late 2010.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview with Neung, Vientiane, late 2010.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview with Ungkhan, Vientiane, late 2010.

[80] Human Rights Watch interview with Neung, Vientiane, late 2010.

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with Pahat, Vientiane, late 2010.

[82] See the US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 20o6: Lao PDR,” March 6, 2007, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78779.htm (accessed September 6, 2011).

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with Saow, Vientiane, late 2010.

[84]Human Rights Watch interview with Pahat, Vientiane, late 2010.

[85] Human Rights Watch interview with Ateet, Vientiane, late 2010.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Pueksapa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[87]Human Rights Watch interview with Paet, Vientiane, late 2010.

[88] Human Rights watch interview with Ungkhan, Vientiane, late 2010.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Neung, Vientiane, late 2010.

[90] Human Rights Watch interview with Sahm, Vientiane, late 2010.

[91] Human Rights Watch interview with Pahat, Vientiane, late 2010.

[92] Human Rights Watch interview with Pueksapa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview, Vientiane, late 2010.

[94]Human Rights Watch interview with Sahm, Vientiane, late 2010.

[95] Human Rights Watch interview with Pacheek, Vientiane, late 2010.

[96] Human Rights Watch interview with Maesa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[97] Human Rights Watch interview with Sahm, Vientiane, late 2010.

[98] Human Rights Watch interview with Tunva, Vientiane, late 2010.

[99] Human Rights Watch interview with Paet, Vientiane, late 2010.

[100]Article 6 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), requires states to take adequate measures to protect the right to life, including those in custody whether from suicide or from being killed by others. See Barbato v Uruguay, Human Rights Committee, Communication No. 84/1981 paras. 9(2) and 10 (a); Lantsova v Russia,Human Rights Committee, View of March 26, 2002, Communication No. 763/1997 para. 9.2; Fabrikant v Canada, Human Rights Committee, View of November 6, 2003, Communication No. 970/2001 para. 9.3. ICCPR was adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, , arts. 10 and 7. Lao P.D.R. acceded to the ICCPR on September 25, 2009. 

[101] Human Rights Watch interview with Paet, Vientiane, late 2010.

[102] See, for example, WHO, “Preventing suicide in jail and prisons,” 2007. www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/resource_jails_prisons.pdf (accessed August 21, 2011).

[103] WHO, “Preventing suicide in jail and prisons,” 2007, p.3.

[104] Letter to Human Rights Watch from Sandeep Chawla, deputy executive director of UNODC, August 13, 2011.

[105] WHO/UNODC, “Principles of Drug Dependence Treatment,” March 2008, p. 9.

[106] Human Rights Watch interview with Ungkhan, Vientiane, late 2010.

[107]Ibid.

[108] According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person” and “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, , arts. 10 and 7. Lao P.D.R. acceded to the ICCPR on September 25, 2009. The UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that “[c]orporal punishment ... and all cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments shall be completely prohibited as punishments for disciplinary offences.” It also states that “[n]o prisoner shall be employed in any disciplinary capacity.” United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Standard Minimum Rules), adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and approved by the Economic and Social Council by its resolution 663 C (XXIV) of July 31, 1957, and 2076 (LXII) of May 13, 1977, paras. 31 and 28(1).

[109] Human Rights Watch interview with Saow, Vientiane, late 2010.

[110] Human Rights Watch interview with Pahat, Vientiane, late 2010.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview with Pueksapa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[112] Human Rights Watch interview with Pacheek, Vientiane, late 2010.

[113] Human Rights Watch interview with Sahm, Vientiane, late 2010.

[114]Human Rights Watch interview with Paet, Vientiane, late 2010.

[115] Human Rights Watch interview with Tunva, Vientiane, late 2010.

[116] See, for example, , N. Thomson, “Detention as Treatment: Detention of Methamphetamine Users in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand,” The Nossal Institute for Global Health and the Open Society Institute, March 2010, p. 47, http://www.soros.org/initiatives/health/focus/ihrd/articles_publications/publications/detention-as-treatment-20100301 (accessed May 12, 2011).

[117] Letter to Human Rights Watch from Sandeep Chawla, deputy executive director of UNODC, August 13, 2011.

[118]At the 33rd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok in 2000, foreign ministers called for a drug-free ASEAN by 2015.Joint Communique of The 33rd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, Bangkok, Thailand, 24-25 July 2000. http://www.asean.org/595.htm (accessed August 18, 2011).

[119] Government of the Lao PDR, “National Drug Control Master Plan 2009-2013,” February 2009, p. 23.

[120] Law on Drugs, art. 29(4).

[121] Meuangkham Noradeth, “Haysok village succeeds in anti-drug activities,” Vientiane Times, March 17, 2006.

[122] Meuangkham Noradeth, “Phonthan Tai aims to wipe out drugs,” Vientiane Times, December 26, 2009.

[123]The village militia, or tamnuat baan, consists of village volunteers who operate in their village of work or residence. They report to the head of the village (nai baan) and play a role in maintaining public order. According to the US State Department, “A militia in urban and rural areas, operating under the aegis of the armed forces, shared responsibility for maintaining public order and reported ‘undesirable elements’ to police.” See US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2010: Laos,” April 8, 2011, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/eap/154390.htm (accessed June 6, 2011).

[124] Human Rights Watch interview with Pahat, Vientiane, late 2010.

[125]Human Rights Watch interview with Paet, Vientiane, late 2010.

[126]Human Rights Watch interview with Pacheek, Vientiane, late 2010.

[127] Human Rights Watch interview with Maesa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[128] Former detainees could not name the medicines they were given during this period, although some identified one of the three tablets they were given (twice daily) as vitamin tablets; Human Rights Watch interviews with Neung, Ungkhan, Pacheek and Maesa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[129] Human Rights Watch interviews with Ateet, Ungkhan, Maesa, Pueksapa, Pahat, Pacheek, and Mankon, Vientiane, late 2010.

[130] Human Rights Watch interviews with Ateet, Ungkhan, Maesa and Pueksapa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[131]The Hmong are an ethnic group living in the mountainous regions of Lao PDR, as well as China, Vietnam and Thailand. Many Hmong fought against the communist Pathet Lao during the Lao civil war (1953-1975) and faced repression after the war because of their close collaboration with the US. Former detainees interviewed during this research were not clear why Hmong people were in Somsanga center. It may be that they are dependent on drugs (particularly opioids). The US State Department’s Human Rights Report for Laos (2010) notes that (with respect to prisons), “There were credible reports from international organizations that authorities treated ethnic minority prisoners particularly harshly.” See US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices–2010: Laos,” April 8, 2011, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/eap/154390.htm (accessed June 6, 2011).

[132] Human Rights Watch interviews with Ungkhan, Maesa and Pueksapa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[133]Human Rights Watch interview with Mankon, Vientiane, late 2010.

[134] Human Rights Watch interview with Maesa, Vientiane, late 2010.

[135] Human Rights Watch interview with Pacheek, Vientiane, late 2010.

[136] Human Rights Watch interview with Ateet, Vientiane, late 2010.

[137] For example: any detention or imprisonment of a child must be in conformity with the law and can be done only as a “measure of last resort” (CRC, art. 37(b)); children deprived of their liberty have the right to challenge the legality of their detention before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and are entitled to a prompt decision on any such action (CRC, art. 37(d)); and the detention of persons under age 18 in the same facilities as adults is prohibited (CRC art. 37(c)). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child—a body of independent experts empowered with interpreting the CRC and examining whether countries are in compliance with it—has noted that children placed in institutions for the purpose of drug treatment are guaranteed at least the same minimum standards as any child deprived of his or liberty. UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Children’s rights in juvenile justice,” General Comment No. 10, 9 February 2007, U.N. Doc No CRC/C/GC/10, fn. 1.

[138] Human Rights Watch interviews with Neung and Pahat, , Vientiane, late 2010.

[139] Human Rights Watch interview with Ungkhan, Vientiane, late 2010.

[140] Manichanh Pansivongsay, “Beggars must stay away during ATF,” Vientiane Times, January 9, 2004; Phonekeo Vorakhoun, “Beggars must be out of town by end of week,” Vientiane Times, January 15, 2004.

[141] “Beggar population in Vientiane capital down,” KPL Lao News Agency, February 13, 2007.

[142] Souksakhone Vaenkeo, “Vientiane clamps down on begging,” Vientiane Times, April 23, 2009.

[143] “Find beggars dial 21 26 09,” KPL Lao News Agency, November 19, 2009.

[144]Human Rights Watch interview with Pahat, Vientiane, late 2010.

[145] “Labor Department Focus on Addressing Beggaring Problem,” Vientiane Mai, February 14, 2011 [Human Rights Watch translation].