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(Bangkok) – United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should call for the immediate release of detainees at the Somsanga drug detention center in her meeting with Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Human Rights Watch said today. Clinton is scheduled to visit the Lao capital, Vientiane, on July 11, 2012.

The US government should stop all funding and other support to the center until the Lao government conducts a full and independent investigation into human rights abuses and puts protections into place to prevent future abuses against those held there, including children, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Lao government and the US State Department claim that Somsanga is a modern healthcare center,” said Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “But a decade of US funding hasn’t changed the fact that it’s a brutal and inhumane detention center where the Lao government puts ‘undesirable’ people.”

An October 2011 Human Rights Watch report, “Somsanga’s Secrets,”on conditions at Somsanga, found that it holds children and adults against their will in a facility with high walls, barbed wire, and guards, indicative of a detention center rather than a drug treatment center. People are held at the center without access to legal counsel, appearing before a judge, or being able to appeal their detention. Street children, the homeless, and the mentally ill are detained alongside people who use drugs. Former detainees reported that anyone trying to escape the center was brutally beaten, and a number described suicides among those held. One child who spent six months in Somsanga told Human Rights Watch: "Some people think that to die is better than staying there." The Somsanga center is a large complex of concrete buildings. Most visitors to the center are shown the “upper buildings,” the Somsanga clinic and the dormitories nearby where patients can stay if their relatives are willing to pay. Further inside Somsanga center, downhill, is what former detainees refer to as the “lower buildings,” two distinct compounds that sit behind high walls topped with barbed wire. Inside, hundreds and sometimes more than a thousand detainees languish in overcrowded cells.

Over the last decade, the US State Department has provided financial support to Somsanga center for renovation and expansion. In June 2012, the US pledged a new round of funding to support the Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision to “upgrade the treatment of drug addicts at the Somsanga Treatment Center and at other centers.”

Following the release of Human Rights Watch’s report, the State Department told journalists that it was unaware of any human rights abuses in the center. However, Lao government media has reported the detention of homeless people and beggars in Somsanga for years. Leading up to 25th Southeast Asia 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.

The US State Department’s annual human rights report in 2012 stated that regular visits to the center by foreign diplomats and international organization representatives based in Vientiane found “no evidence to support the [HRW] report.” No thorough, independent investigation of abuses in the center has been conducted, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the State Department and the US Embassy in Vientiane prior to the release of the report, asking whether they had any reports of human rights violations, as well as whether the US had any formal system in place to report human rights abuses witnessed by project staff. To date, Human Rights Watch has not received a response to this correspondence.

“The US has paid for the buildings and fences at Somsanga,” Amon said. “They are subsidizing the illegal detention under cruel conditions of street children, the homeless, and mentally ill people.”

In March 2012, 12 United Nations agencies – including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Health Organization, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) – issued a joint statement calling for the closure of drug detention centers and the release of detained individuals “without delay.”

“The UN has made it clear that drug detention centers like Somsanga jeopardize the health and human rights of detainees,” Amon said. “If the US really cares about providing proper drug treatment, it should push the Lao government to close its drug detention centers and support voluntary, community-based drug treatment instead.”

Human Rights Watch is not alone in raising concerns about abuses at Lao’s drug detention centers. As early as 2003, UNICEF criticized Somsanga and other Lao centers for detaining children in conditions that contravened the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Lao is a party. In 2010, the Nossal Institute for Global Health also reported human rights abuses at Somsanga. Human Rights Watch also called on the US government to conduct a full and transparent review of its funding to Somsanga throughout this period. 

Selected accounts from “Somsanga’s Secrets”
“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.”
–Mankon, a beggar

“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.”
–Sahm, detained in 2010, describing the punishment of detainees who had attempted escape

“As far as I know there is no independent monitoring of these [drug detention] centers either from the perspective of evidence of effectiveness, or from the perspective of compliance with human rights.”
–Staff member of organization familiar with Somsanga, September 2011

“[In] the room I stayed in, a man committed suicide. He hanged 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.”
–Pacheek, a child when released mid-2010

“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, and punish him!’ The police were watching. It felt very painful. I was bleeding from my lip and my face was swollen.”
–Paet, released early 2010 

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