The Washington Post, Associated Press, 7 September  2011

An international human rights group urged Vietnam to shut down drug rehabilitation centers that it said subject inmates to abuse and forced labor. It also called Wednesday on international donors to check the programs they fund inside the centers for possible ties to human rights violations.

New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Vietnam of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of drug addicts over the past decade without due process and forcing them to work long hours for little pay.

It also alleged that the U.S. and Australian governments, the United Nations, the World Bank and other international donors may “indirectly facilitate human rights abuses” by providing drug dependency or HIV treatment and prevention services to addicts inside some of the centers.

About 309,000 drug users nationwide passed through the centers from 2000 to 2010, with the number of facilities more than doubling — from 56 to 123— and the maximum length of detention rising from one to four years, the report said, citing government figures.

The report called drug treatment at the centers “ineffective and abusive,” claiming donor support for health services inside such facilities allows Vietnam to “maximize profits” by detaining drug addicts for longer periods and forcing them to do manual labor.

“People who are dependent on drugs in Vietnam need access to community-based, voluntary treatment,” Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch in New York, 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.”

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga called the report “groundless,” saying compulsory drug rehabilitation in Vietnam is “humane, effective and beneficial for drug users, community and society.”

Vietnam’s drug rehabilitation centers comply with Vietnamese law and are “in line” with drug-treatment principles set by the U.S., the U.N. and the World Health Organization, Nga added.

Officials from the U.S., Australia and the United Nations declined to comment.

The U.S. last year provided $7.7 million to the country for methadone treatment and community-based drug intervention, according to the US Embassy website. Injecting drug users are a driving force behind HIV infections across Vietnam.

The World Bank funded an HIV/AIDS prevention program in 20 drug rehabilitation centers across Vietnam that ended last year.

“We have not received any reports of human rights violations in the drug rehabilitation clinics supported by the project,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vietnam’s country director. “If we had, we would have conducted a supervision mission to ensure bank policies were met and concerns fully examined.”

Detainees inside the Vietnamese drug centers report beatings and spells of solitary confinement, and some who attempted escape say they were captured and shocked with an electric baton as punishment, according to the 126-page report that interviewed 34 former detainees in 2010 who were held at 14 centers in and around southern Ho Chi Minh City.

It also charged Vietnam with forcing prisoners to sew clothing, lay bricks or husk cashews for between $5 and $20 per month, a violation of domestic labor law, which guarantees a minimum monthly wage of about $40.

Instead of providing health services inside the centers, donors should focus on releasing detainees back into their communities, the report said, citing government reports that place the relapse rate for drug users treated inside the centers at 80 percent or higher.

China and other Southeast Asian countries have also come under fire from rights groups in recent years for alleged human rights violations inside similar drug rehabilitation facilities.

Several large escapes from Vietnam’s drug rehabilitation centers have been reported in recent years.

The centers, which began opening after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, are one facet of Vietnam’s ongoing campaign against drug abuse, prostitution and other so-called “social evils.”

Most detainees are young male heroin users, the Human Rights Watch report said, citing government data. Some are rounded up by police while others are sent to the centers by family members.

Vietnam says there are 138,000 drug addicts in the country and 30 percent them are HIV positive, down from 60 percent in 2006.

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