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.

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

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.

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.

“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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