In a report released last week, Human Rights Watch accuses a Vientiane drug rehabilitation centre supported by the US embassy and UN agencies of abuses and arbitrary detention. And advocates say it’s a model that is gaining popularity throughout the region
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An April, 2009, report by a UN-affiliated news agency portrays the Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre in Vientiane as a refuge for methamphetamine addicts _ a place outside Laos’ harsh penal system where they could get clean and learn skills to build new lives. Sports, films and a gym were available at the facility, said the report by the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks. “Vocational training not only entertains patients,” it said, “but provides them with confidence and skills for their return to the outside world.” The report was optimistic about the potential of taking the “Somsanga approach” nationwide.
ROUNDED UP: A guard lectures detainees at the Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre. A report released by Human Rights Watch last week says that the bleak conditions at the centre keep detainees from benefiting from vocational programmes.PHOTO: ARANTXA CEDILLO
Last week, a damning report released by the US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) challenged that image of Somsanga. Based on interviews with 12 people formerly held at the facility, the report paints a picture of a primitive compound surrounded by barbed wire where people are crammed into locked cells, subjected to physical abuse and held without due process for months or even years.
Those interviewed for the report said that the worth of the vocational training offered at the centre was negated by the bleak conditions and forced confinement.
The report also alleges that the facility, rather than rehabilitating drug addicts is serving a dumping ground for those the Lao government deems undesirable such as street children, the homeless, and the mentally ill.
See also: How will addicts fare in Thailand’s “gentler” drug War?
HRW and other human rights monitoring bodies say that the conditions at Somsanga and the manner in which its place outside the court system is exploited by authorities are commonplace at facilities throughout the region.
‘BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE US AND UN’
BARRING ADDICTION: A detainee at the Somsanga centre. The essence of Somsanga’s purported ‘treatment’ remains being locked up, at risk of physical abuse for infringing rules or trying to escape, says Human Rights Watch.
Since 2002, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been central to Somsanga’s growth via funding provided by the US embassy in Vientiane. The US State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) has provided that funding. The UNODC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the construction and renovation of buildings at the centre over the past 10 years. The first buildings at Somsanga were constructed in 1996 when it was under the authority of Laos’ Ministry of Public Security. Initial UNODC support involved the construction from 2001 to 2003 of a health clinic beside the main site. During this time, the centre fell under the Ministry of Public Health, with oversight from the Lao Commission on Drug Control. Further capacity building, training and construction projects have continued over the years.
From 2008 to mid-2011, UNODC implemented another project for providing a “suitable basic setting for drug detoxification and rehabilitation and to implement vocational training activities”, according to the HRW report. The project was funded to the tune of US$242,837 from the INL.
Technical support has also been provided by the DED (German Development Service), the Singapore International Foundation, and a handful of other organisations and embassies in Vientiane. Other agencies implicated in the report as helping to fund Somsanga and similar centres in Laos include the Australian, German, Japanese and Singaporean embassies in Vientiane; all have denied any awareness of reports of human rights abuses in the centre.
“International donors are subsidising the illegal detention of people the Lao government finds undesirable and wants locked away,” Joe Amon, director of health and human rights at HRW said.
PULLED INTO ‘PURGATORY’
The Somsanga Rehabilitation Centre is located on the outskirts of Vientiane and comprises a large complex of concrete buildings inside a barbed wire perimeter fence guarded by police.
The “upper buildings” _ those nearest the gate from which the compound slopes gently downhill _ house the clinic and dormitories offering reasonable conditions for those who can pay for them, according to the report. Further in are the “lower buildings” where the bulk of the detainees are kept in overcrowded cells behind high barbed wire-topped walls.
Detainees arrive at Somsanga either after having been picked up by police or village militia groups or sent there by their families, the HRW report says.
A stated government objective of a “drug free” Laos by 2015 means intense pressure at the village level on families of those even suspected of having a drug problem to request that village officials send them to Somsanga.
According to the Lao Commission on Drug Control, the population at Somsanga has fluctuated between 1,100 and 1,600 detainees per year between 2003 and 2009.
The rules at the centre are strict and detainees elected “room captains” act as brutal guards with the complicity of police and facility staff to keep others in line. The detainees interviewed by HRW said the room captains would regularly beat other inmates on the instruction of officials, particularly when an escape was attempted. Of the 12 interviewed, five had witnessed suicide attempts during their stays at the centre _ one detainee recounts watching another kill himself by ingesting glass in the report.
The inmates interviewed by HRW alleged that while officials left the beatings to room guards, they did punish detainees in other ways. “Paet”, released in early 2010, recounted a punishment he received after he was involved in a fight.
“They sent us to the septic tank. We had to take the sh** to the main rubbish dump. Then we had to clean the sh** out of the septic tank with water.
“It was disgusting. Some were vomiting and others were dizzy. We had to stand in the sh**. There were worms in it.”
“Tunva”, who was released in 2010 after four months at the centre, recalled an inmate who tried to escape being tied to a pole of a volleyball net. “They seized him at 1pm and they didn’t let him go until 5 or 6pm. It was hot and he was suffering,” he told HRW. “The foreigners [who visit Somsanga] didn’t see this: they don’t let the foreigners see things like this.”
Mr Amon said UN agencies have called for the closure of facilities with conditions similar to those described in the report about Somsanga. “But the UNODC country office in Laos works in exactly the opposite direction. Despite receiving in-country support and training from UNODC for a decade, Somsanga operates in flagrant disregard for principles stated by UNODC headquarters,” he said. “It’s the UN agency on drugs and crime but it’s routinely turning a blind eye to crimes reported in the name of drug treatment.”
When contacted by Spectrum, Gary Lewis, regional representative for the UNODC’s regional centre for East Asia and Pacific, told Spectrum that his office no longer provided assistance to Somsanga despite its website listing the centre as an “ongoing” project.
“At the present, UNODC does not provide funding or activity support to Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre or activities in compulsory centres that are in operation in other countries in East and Southeast Asia,” Mr Lewis said, adding that UNODC’s involvement in “Project F13 [Somsanga] was completed in March this year” and that the website would be updated to reflect this.
The US embassy in Vientiane maintains there have been significant improvements at Somsanga in recent years that have seen it shift from a law-enforcement tool to a health-oriented facility that provides genuine treatment, occupational therapy and vocational training to patients.
Mike Pryor, the deputy public affairs officer at the US embassy in Vientiane, told Spectrum that staff there were taking the allegations in the HRW report seriously and monitoring the situation closely.
“At the same time, we believe that our recent and current projects at Somsanga in cooperation with the Lao government and the international community have resulted in a number of improvements for the population there,” Mr Pryor said.
Susan Pittman, senior press adviser at the INL, also denied knowledge of abuses at Somsanga: “Embassy personnel and our international partners have had frequent and unfettered access to Somsanga. Our interactions with patients, discussions with staff, as well as consultations with other bilateral and multilateral donors, have disclosed no reports of systematic human rights violations,” said Ms Pittman.
‘NOT JUST ADDICTS’
The former detainees interviewed for the HRW report talk of being held for periods of three months to more than a year at the facility without access to a lawyer or any judicial process and no way of securing their release.
“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,” the HRW report quotes “Mankon”, a former detainee who described himself as a lifelong beggar, as saying.
The report stressed that despite the institute’s mandate as a drug rehabilitation centre, the detention of homeless people and beggars such as Mankon has been widely reported even in government-run media.
The state-run Vientiane Times reported in February, 2004, that more than 30 beggars were taken to Somsanga prior to the Asean Tourism Forum meeting in the Lao capital. Similar reports on the incarceration of beggars at Somsanga were published in the local media in 2007 and 2009. In the lead-up to the 25th SEA Games in Vientiane in December, 2009, local media reported that the government even set up a telephone hotline where people could report beggars so they could be picked up and brought to Somsanga.
“The most vulnerable and marginalised of Lao society are picked up and held there to ‘clean the streets’,” HRW’s Mr Amon said.
The HRW and other human rights agencies including the OHCHR say that regardless of what might incur during their time at Somsanga detainees there are victims of arbitrary detention. The former detainees interviewed by HRW said they arrived at the centre without a formal legal hearing and were stuck there without means to appeal. HRW and other concerned agencies say this trend of arbitrary detention in the guise of drug rehabilitation that they allege is taking place at Somsanga is becoming commonplace regionwide.
In December, 2010, UN agencies convened a meeting in Bangkok to discuss alternatives to compulsory drug detention centres.
Jointly convened by the UNODC and UNAids, the summary record of the meeting states that ”despite the fact that evidence shows that the practice is neither effective nor efficient, the [compulsory drug detention centre] model has expanded in recent years, with hundreds of thousands of people detained from months to years at a time. Current evidence shows that this expansion has resulted in increased risk of HIV infection, increased stigma and prejudice, as well as human rights violations.”
In Vietnam, more than 40,000 people are currently detained in 123 drug-rehabilitation centres, according to government figures.
There as in Laos, the rehabilitation centres exist outside of the courts. Police in Vietnam dispatch the majority of those they deem drug addicts to the camps. An HRW report from last month alleges that detainees at the camps are subject to torture and forced labour.
”Forced labour and physical abuse are not an adjunct to drug dependency treatment in Vietnam,” the report says. ”Rather, they are central to how the centres operate.”
An HRW report from last year details a similar situation in Cambodia, where it says more than 2,000 people pass through the country’s 11 detention centres, where they are subjected to conditions similar to military drills, hard labour and forced exercise.
Another HRW report estimates that there are some 350,000 drug users in forced rehabilitation centres, also without access to due process.
Another UN agency, Unicef, was a key supporter of the Choam Chao Youth Rehabilitation Centre in Cambodia, but pulled out following reports in local and international media outlining abusive practices there.
Homayoun Alizadeh, the OHCHR regional representative for Southeast Asia, told Spectrum that the number of people in such facilities throughout the region requires a concerted approach, particularly from all related UN agencies.
”We have a huge number of people that are held in so-called rehabilitation centres against their will and unnecessarily and this is a clear violation of their human rights,” he said. ”We are discussing this among ourselves. This especially is our task, to convince our UN colleagues that what they do should be in accordance with international human rights laws, and not based just on the programme of what the respective government wants.”
Despite the role the UNODC has played in establishing the centre, Mr Lewis says his office opposes the ”compulsory centre approach for people who use drugs because the approach provides neither effective drug treatment nor rehabilitation.
”In our view, the international community can and should promote the process of shifting towards voluntary, community-based treatment by helping develop, and fund, an approach which leads to their being phased out. Funding should now specifically target community-based alternatives which involve all relevant government and non-government partners in Lao PDR.”
The UNODC representative said however, that ultimately it is up to the Lao government to determine when it makes the shift to community-based voluntary drug treatment programmes.
But according to HRW, some members of international organisations familiar with drug issues in Laos had said that the impetus to build such centres comes from international donors, not the Lao government.
”External donors are encouraging Lao PDR to continue to build and run these [drug detention] centres. Eight new centres were built with external funding over the last few years. In my experience, Lao decision makers know very well the limitations of these centres,” an unnamed official was quoted in the HRW report as saying.
Aside from Somsanga, the oldest and largest facility of its type, the report lists other centres based on similar models in Champasak province (supported by Thailand), Savanakhet and and Bokeo (supported by the US), Oudomxay (supported by China), Luang Prabang (supported by Japan), as well as two facilities in Xayaburi (supported by Brunei).
The support for Somsanga from the specific country teams of UNODC and the US Embassy in Vientiane seems to be in contradiction to the stance held by country offices elsewhere in the region, says HRW, which has called for the facility’s closure and urged UNODC and other donors to review or withdraw all funding and launch investigations into the alleged human rights abuses.
”Plenty of things slip under the radar when it comes to Lao PDR. Quite rightly, the US Embassy in Cambodia told us it would have nothing to do with drug detention centres in that country, and the US Embassy in Vietnam has called for Vietnam’s centres to be eliminated. But in Lao PDR the US Embassy actually constructs buildings and fences,” Mr Amon said.
Lao government agencies refused comment when contacted by Spectrum.
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- Writer: Ismail Wolff