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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.

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Cambodia plans to close facilities around the country and instead send addicts to one large center, to be built in its port city of Sihanoukville. The land was donated by Mong Reththy, a Cambodian tycoon who also owns a port and a palm oil plantation, which both sit adjacent to the site.

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“We will provide jobs to all drug-addicted people who are willing to work, and I welcome all drug-addicted people because I have a lot of space for them,” Mr. Mong told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper in December.

Though Cambodian officials have not suggested that addicts will be forced to work without pay, activists worry that Cambodia will follow Vietnam's lead, where HRW found evidence that addicts are forced to work for free or for as little as 75 cents per month.

The Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement in 2009 promising to “meet any requests by Cambodia to help it prevent and combat drugs.” And Vietnam has promised $2.5 million to help build Cambodia’s center in Sihanoukville.

Such promises have raised concern by HRW and other groups that Cambodia will follow the Vietnamese model and put business interests ahead of human rights.

Vietnam’s government meanwhile, defends its approach to drug treatment. In the Sept. 5 letter Do Thi Ninh Xuan said that labor at the centers “is not completely obliged but merely curative and a part of the drug addiction treatment.”

“The curative labor conducted at the centers is not for business. All products from their labor are used to better their own living at the facility,” Do Thi Ninh Xuan wrote.

Activists push for community based help

HRW researchers found that some products manufactured at the centers were supplied to international companies, including Oregon-based Colombia Sportswear and a Swiss firm, Vestergaard Frandsen, which sourced mosquito nets from Vietnamese subcontractors.

Both companies terminated their relationships with Vietnamese partners after HRW informed them that some of their products were being manufactured in detention centers.

HRW has asked international donors to review their support for Vietnam’s drug detention centers to make sure funding is not directed into programs that violate international human rights law. Donors include the UN, the World Bank, and the US government.

The rights group has asked the Vietnamese government to close the detention centers, investigate abuses and forced labor, and compensate detainees for abuse suffered while in detention.

"People who are dependent on drugs in Vietnam need access to community-based, voluntary treatment," Amon said in a statement. "Instead, the government is locking them up, private companies are exploiting their labor and international donors are turning a blind eye to the torture and abuses they face."

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