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(New York) - Chinese authorities are incarcerating drug users in compulsory drug detention centers that deny them access to treatment for drug dependency and put them at risk of physical abuse and unpaid forced labor, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Half a million people are confined within compulsory drug detention centers in China at any given time, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

The 37-page report, "Where Darkness Knows No Limits," based on research in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, documents how China's June 2008 Anti-Drug Law compounds the health risks of suspected illicit drug users by allowing government officials and security forces to incarcerate them for up to seven years. The incarceration is without trial or judicial oversight.  The law fails to clearly define mechanisms for legal appeals or the reporting of abusive conduct, and does not ensure evidence-based drug dependency treatment.

"Instead of putting in place effective drug dependency treatment, the new Chinese law subjects suspected drug users to arbitrary detention and inhumane treatment," said Joe Amon, the Health and Human Rights Division director at Human Rights Watch. "The Chinese government has explained the law as a progressive step towards recognizing drug users as ‘patients,' but they're not even being provided the rights of ordinary prisoners."

The report documents how individuals detained in some drug detention centers are routinely beaten, denied medical treatment, and forced to work up to 18 hours a day without pay. Although sentenced to "rehabilitation," they are denied access to effective drug dependency treatment and provided no opportunity to learn skills to reintegrate into the community.

Human Rights Watch said that over the past decade, the Chinese government has promoted progressive policies that embrace some harm reduction strategies as part of a pragmatic response to high rates of drug use and HIV/AIDS. Partnering with local and international nongovernmental organizations, the Chinese government has expanded community-based methadone therapy and piloted needle exchange programs in some areas with high HIV/AIDS rates. A statement released by the Office of China National Narcotics Control Commission in June 2008 declared that "drug treatment and rehabilitation is in accordance with human-centered principles." In March 2009 a high-ranking government official stated, "The Chinese Government maintains that drug treatment and rehabilitation should proceed in a people-oriented way."

However, Human Rights Watch said that in practice, the new law is compounding the health risks, social marginalization, and stigmatization of suspected drug users.

Although the implementation of the Anti-Drug Law ended the practice of sentencing suspected drug users to Re-Education Through Labor (RTL), the Anti-Drug Law expands the sentence in a compulsory drug detention center to a minimum of two years, up from the previously mandated six to twelve month sentence. These drug detention centers permit the same abuses of unpaid forced labor, physical abuse, and the denial of basic health care common under the RTL system.

Abuses have led to the death of detainees in some cases, according to former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch. The law also adds an undefined "community-based rehabilitation" period of up to four years, effectively permitting incarceration without trial for up to seven years.

"The Chinese government should stop these abuses and ensure that the rights of suspected drug users are fully respected," said Amon. "Addressing illicit drug use requires developing voluntary, community-based, outpatient treatment based upon effective, proven approaches to drug addiction. Warehousing large numbers of drug users and subjecting them to forced labor and physical abuse is not ‘rehabilitation.'"

Accounts from former detainees of China's drug detention centers in Yunnan, 2009:

"I was leaving work when I was ambushed by several plainclothes police. They started beating me and put handcuffs on me. No one on the street tried to help because they just assumed I was a criminal. The police said if I didn't give them 3,000 RMB [US$440] they would put me in a drug detention center. They brought me to my house and told me if I didn't get the money they would keep beating me. They waited while I was inside and waited while my family found 3,000 RMB from relatives."

"When we are on the street, in a restaurant, anywhere, the police can just grab us and make us do a urine test. Whenever we use the national identity card they can make us do a urine test."

"The police stopped me and they wanted money. I said, ‘Please don't use violence. Please don't use violence.' But they beat me."

"I am a former drug addict. I started using in 1990. I've tried to get clean and have been in compulsory labor camps more than eight times. I just cannot go back to a forced labor camp - [it is] a terrifying world where darkness knows no limits."

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