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Abuse at Vietnam's drug detention centers highlights regional problem

A report by Human Rights Watch accuses Vietnam of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of drug addicts throughout the past decade without due process and subjecting them to forced labor.

By Jared FerrieCorrespondent / September 8, 2011



Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cashew lovers may be disappointed to hear that the snack could have decidedly distasteful origins.

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A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses Vietnam of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese drug addicts throughout the past decade without due process and forcing them to work long hours in detention centers processing cashew nuts and other items for sale by companies.

The report also documents beatings and torture inside the centers, which increased in number from 56 in 2000 to 123 by early this year. The report puts a spotlight on human rights abuses against drug addicts across Southeast Asia.

“This is an absolutely outrageous example of government-condoned forced labor using one of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations,” says Joe Amon, HRW’s director of health and human rights, in an interview.

In a letter to HRW dated Sept. 5, Vietnam’s Department of Social Ills Prevention’s deputy director, Do Thi Ninh Xuan, denied such abuses, insisting that the compulsory detention of addicts is a “humanitarian measure” aimed at helping them escape drug dependency.

Former detainees who spoke to HRW, however, painted a picture of life in detention as slave laborers, included working 10 hour days, six days a week.

“First they beat my legs so that I couldn't run off again... [Then] they shocked me with an electric baton [and] kept me in the punishment room for a month,” Quynh Luu, a former detainee who was caught trying to escape from one center, told HRW.

Similar conditions in the region

Conditions in Vietnamese drug centers mirror those in neighboring countries that have also come under fire in recent years. China and Thailand, for example, both also force addicts into detention, a policy that many consider a violation of individual rights.

China has hundreds of thousands of people in more than 100 mandatory treatment facilities, including some that employ forced labor, says Mr. Amon.

Addicts in Thailand are not forced to work but endure a militarized approach to treatment, including drills and exercises, according to HRW.

Rights groups were also alarmed when the country’s new prime minister, Yingluk Shinawatra, pledged during her campaign to “eradicate” drugs within a year of being elected. Her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, launched a drug war in 2003 that saw thousands of extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests.

Cambodia to consolidate treatment centers

In Cambodia, rights groups have documented torture and abuse in detention centers, but the use of forced labor is on a smaller scale and “ad hoc,” Amon says, adding that HRW is paying attention to Cambodia's new plan to consolidate its centers with the help of Vietnam.

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