Where darkness knows no limits: incarceration, ill-treatment, and forced labor as drug rehabilitation in China

8 January 2010

Chinese authorities are incarcerating drug users in compulsory drug detention centres that deny them access to treatment for drug dependency and put them at risk of physical abuse and unpaid forced labor, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Half a million people are confined within compulsory drug detention centers in China at any given time, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

The 37-page report, "Where Darkness Knows No Limits," based on research in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, documents how China's June 2008 Anti-Drug Law compounds the health risks of suspected illicit drug users by allowing government officials and security forces to incarcerate them for up to seven years. The incarceration is without trial or judicial oversight. The law fails to clearly define mechanisms for legal appeals or the reporting of abusive conduct, and does not ensure evidence-based drug dependency treatment.

"Instead of putting in place effective drug dependency treatment, the new Chinese law subjects suspected drug users to arbitrary detention and inhumane treatment," said Joe Amon, the Health and Human Rights Division director at Human Rights Watch. "The Chinese government has explained the law as a progressive step towards recognizing drug users as ‘patients,' but they're not even being provided the rights of ordinary prisoners."

The report documents how individuals detained in some drug detention centers are routinely beaten, denied medical treatment, and forced to work up to 18 hours a day without pay. Although sentenced to "rehabilitation," they are denied access to effective drug dependency treatment and provided no opportunity to learn skills to reintegrate into the community.

Human Rights Watch said that over the past decade, the Chinese government has promoted progressive policies that embrace some harm reduction strategies as part of a pragmatic response to high rates of drug use and HIV/AIDS. Partnering with local and international nongovernmental organizations, the Chinese government has expanded community-based methadone therapy and piloted needle exchange programs in some areas with high HIV/AIDS rates. A statement released by the Office of China National Narcotics Control Commission in June 2008 declared that "drug treatment and rehabilitation is in accordance with human-centered principles." In March 2009 a high-ranking government official stated, "The Chinese Government maintains that drug treatment and rehabilitation should proceed in a people-oriented way."