‘Held Against Their Will’

A human rights group wants Laos to close a rehab center in the capital.

An international human rights group has called on the Lao government to shutter a drug rehabilitation center in the nation’s capital and to investigate allegations of forced detention and inhumane treatment.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report Monday that police and local militia are “forcibly detaining” drug users, who risk “beatings and other abuse” at the Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Vientiane.

“The government of Lao PDR should permanently close the Somsanga center … [and] should immediately conduct a thorough and independent investigation into allegations of arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in Somsanga,” the rights group said in a statement.

“The Lao Government should develop voluntary, community-based drug treatment and other social services that respect human rights and comport with international standards.”

Human Rights Watch said that in addition to detaining drug users, other groups such as homeless people, street children, people with mental disabilities, and others deemed “undesirable” are often held against their will at the center as well.

According to the report, entitled “Somsanga’s Secrets: Arbitrary Detention, Physical Abuse, and Suicide in a Lao Drug Detention Center,” detainees are held without due process, often for periods of three months to more than a year, and may be brutally beaten if they try to escape.

The report said that since at least 2002, international donors have supported the Somsanga center by constructing or refurbishing buildings, training staff, and providing vocational training courses in the center.

It called on the U.S. government, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and several other embassies and external organizations that have provided donor support for the center to review all future assistance to ensure it is not used in programs that violate international law.

“International donors claim that Somsanga is a legitimate drug treatment center,” said Joe Amon, director of health and human rights at Human Rights Watch. “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 brutalized.”

Beaten ‘unconscious’

Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 former detainees who it said described beatings, involuntary detention, and suicides by inmates despondent at being locked up and abandoned by their families.

A former detainee, who gave his name as Sahm, 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.”

Five of the interviewees said they directly witnessed suicides or suicide attempts involving ingesting glass, swallowing soap, or hanging.

Drug users are either picked up by police or local militia, or sent there by their relatives, under intense pressure to make their villages “drug free,” the former detainees said.

Other “undesirables” are also held at the center, they said, especially before national holidays and international events.

A child, identified as Maesa and who spent six months in Somsanga, questioned why authorities would force people who were not drug users to stay at the treatment center.

“[In Somsanga] there are drug users, [but also] beggars, petty thieves, alcoholics, homeless people, Hmong ... It’s unfair: they are already homeless and don’t do anything wrong. Why do they have to take them to rehab?”

Ahead of the 25th Southeast Asia (SEA) Games in Vientiane in December 2009, the government even established a national 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,” Amon said. “The most vulnerable and marginalized of Lao society are picked up and held there to ‘clean the streets.’”

Human Rights Watch said that regardless of how they got there, the former detainees said that they had been sent to the center 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 and were not free to leave.

In its annual Human Rights Report, the U.S. State Department said that while Lao law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, “in practice, the government did not respect these provisions and arbitrary arrest and detention persisted.”

Reported by Joshua Lipes.