LAOS: Prison conditions at rehab center cause concerns for global advocates

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Female cells at Sohanga Drug Detention Centre
Female detention cells at the Sohanga Drug Rehabilitation Centre show bars on the cells making them feel and look like a prison, September 29, 2010. Image: Prince Roy

(WNN) Vientiane, LAOS: In what has been described as a “brutal and inhumane detention center,” Human Rights Watch has asked United States Secretary Hillary Clinton and the U.S. State Department to: “stop all funding and other support to the Centre until the Lao government conducts a full and independent investigation into human rights abuses and puts protections into place to prevent future abuses against those held there, including children.”

The Somsanga Drug Detention Centre, located in Vientiane, Laos calls itself a drug rehabilitation healthcare center. The Centre has been the subject of long range scrutiny and controversy. Investigations and interviews have outlined poor and deteriorating conditions in the facility that holds adults, as well as children, against their will.

Those incarcerated at the center include homeless women and children, as well as men, who are joined by those who suffer from drug abuse or mental illness. “In addition to suspected drug users, authorities arbitrarily detain beggars, the homeless people, children and the mentally ill in the center,” said HRW – Human Rights Watch.

Access to any legal counsel or judicial  process is also being denied to all those who are being held against their will at Somsanga under what appears to be arbitrary detention.

The center has “..high walls, barbed wire, and guards, indicative of a detention center rather than a drug treatment center,” outlines Human Rights Watch, who has issued a formal request to the U.S. State Department asking the U.S. government to stop immediately all U.S. based funding of the center and investigate conditions at Somsanga.

“Some people think that to die is better than staying there,” says a child who had been held against their will at the center for six months. Many of the children in the Centre have been homeless and without any resources or protective advocates.

After a decade of funding, the month of June 2012 has brought more additional operational monies to the Somsanga Clinic. A formal promise of $400,000 USD for yearly assistance was made on June 7, 2012 by the U.S. State Department for counter narcotics initiatives in the region, including the training of police and what has been described by State Department officials as an “upgrading” of the facilities at Somsanga where drug addicts and the homeless are processed.

Custom officials in the region will also be receiving more training through a $100,000 assistance grant issued by the U.S. State Department as part of the $400,000 USD funding initiative. Reduction in the number of illegal poppy growing facilities to reduce opium distribution in the region, as well as tracking opium addicts, is on the agenda for police security and custom officials.

But international advocates are concerned that the Somsanga Rehabilitation Clinic and Centre is not an environment that should stay open. Overcrowding at the facility under what some call ‘inhumane conditions of detention’ where people cannot come and go, but are locked up behind high walls, jail cells and barbed wire, may call for the attention and investigation of the U.S. State Department as well as the UNODC – United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“They are subject to frequent beatings by ‘room captains’ who have the power to punish them for attempted escapes or other misbehavior,” is the description given by the Asia Times Online for those who are in charge of enclosed areas at Somsanga.

“We don’t know why we were put inside. We were just hanging out at night time and the police came and put us in trucks and brought us to Somsanga,” said witness detainees who were forced to stay with access to little advocacy at the Somsanga Centre.

Suicide inside the facilities has also been described and has been commonly witnessed by numerous former detainees of the Rehabilitation Centre. Eating broken glass, swallowing fabric soap or hanging until dead are some of the ways detainees have killed themselves under what Human Rights Watch describes as “the bleakness and cruelty of detention in its crowded cells.”

A child who has been released from Somsangha also described the suicide of his cellmate by hanging. An event that happened in full view of the child.

One of the former detainees, who is a woman, described two suicides and one attempted suicide that she witnessed when she was forced to stay in Somsanga. “Some people think that to die is better than staying there,” she said in a witness statement made to HRW. “Some tried to kill themselves and their lives are saved. I saw one girl from the ‘lower buildings.’ She ate fabric detergent because she wanted to die. She was upset her family left her in this place. She didn’t die because the doctor found her and cleaned her stomach. Then they took care of her and told her not to try and kill herself. Others they die. Two men committed suicide when I was there. They hanged themselves. Then the staff brought the bodies up to the clinic. It was two different times, the two deaths. I saw the dead bodies.” continued the former woman detainee.

“There is a rule of ‘no hitting’ but the room captains still do. If you try to escape or fight, you are put in a cell and at about five or six o’clock the room captains come and punish you. I saw room captains beat people inside the cells: the person had to kneel and hold their hands behind their head and then the room captains started kicking them. I saw beatings like this all the time,” said a former detainee who was released from the Centre in mid-2010 after eight months of living under ‘prison-like‘ conditions inside Somsanga,

“Human Rights Watch believes Somsanga should close because the center entails an unacceptably high risk of other human rights abuses, such as ill-treatment of detainees by staff or detainee guards and the arbitrary detention of populations considered socially “undesirable,” says the recent October 2011 Human Rights Watch report.

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