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A centre for abuse and beating

Published in: The Nation, Thailand

Police and local militia in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, are forcibly detaining people who use drugs in a so-called treatment centre where the detainees risk beatings and other abuse, according to a Human Rights Watch report released today.

Homeless people, street children, people with mental disabilities, and others deemed "undesirable" are often detained in the centre as well.

The 76-page report, "Somsanga's Secrets: Arbitrary Detention, Physical Abuse and Suicide in a Lao Drug Detention Centre," examines conditions in the Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre, 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 centre. 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 brutalised.

"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 demoralised 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 12 former detainees interviewed, five said they had directly witnessed suicides or suicide attempts.

Somsanga's detainees either were picked up by police or 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 has 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. The most vulnerable and marginalised 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 centre 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 Laos should permanently close the Somsanga centre. It 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 centre by constructing or refurbishing buildings, training centre staff and providing vocational training courses in the centre. 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 organisations. 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 urges donors and their implementing agencies to review all assistance to Somsanga to ensure that no funding is supporting policies or programmes that violate international human rights law, including the prohibition on arbitrary detention.

International donors have built the buildings and fences. They are subsidising the illegal detention of people the Lao government finds undesirable and wants locked away.

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