A new report from Human Rights Watch finds a troubling new development in the way the China regime handles its estimated 5 million opium users. Despite the 2008 Anti-Drug Law calling for enlightened rehabilitation measures, drug users typically don’t receive therapy of any kind and instead are sentenced to what Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls “compulsory drug detention centers.”
These centers function like Reeducation Through Labor (RTL) camps: compulsory work camps, which they replaced. Those caught in the system are “routinely beaten,” forced to work up to 18 hours a day without pay, and denied basic health care—features that were common under the RTL system.
The 37-page report, “Where Darkness Knows No Limits,” paints a picture of hopelessness for those trapped in a life of addiction, denial of treatment and basic health care, police harassment, and community stigmatization. A common complaint of the subjects in the study was that the police are often violent to drug users. One example among many given was an IDU (injection drug user) who said he was “ambushed” by several plainclothes police, who beat him and put handcuffs on him.
“The police said that if I did not give them 3,000 RMB [US$440], they would put me in detox [drug detention centers]. They brought me to my house and told me if I didn’t get the money they would keep beating me.” The man said police waited outside his house while he got the money they demanded from his relatives.
Even though illicit drug users are now called “patients” and are in “rehabilitation” centers, these detention facilities do not provide health-based drug dependency treatment or mental health counseling. The minimum sentences have increased from six-to-twelve months to two-to-three years. In addition, police have expanded powers of detainment and can compel urine tests without evidence of illicit drug use.
“Although the Anti-Drug Law frequently refers to ‘drug treatment’ for drug users, multiple sources told Human Rights Watch that treatment is not provided; rather than extending the period of treatment, the Anti-Drug Law merely extends the period of confinement,” says the report.
HRW’s research draws principally on the statements made by 33 current or former illicit drug users, residing in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, who have experienced firsthand the impact of the 2008 Anti-Drug Law. The report also had access to 25 individuals working for nongovernmental organizations, which are monitoring the rights and health of drug users and people living with HIV/AIDS.
These two provinces are in the southern part of China and share a border between them with Yunnan to the west of Guangxi. Yunnan borders Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and both provinces border Vietnam. For purposes of this study, these provinces in terms of geography, ethnic composition, and drug issues, are not representative of China.
Yunnan is located at the apex of the “Golden Triangle,” an opium-rich region where the Laos, Thailand and Burma borders converge. The province has a long history of narcotics use, says the report.
2008 Anti-Drug Law Made Conditions Worse
The 2008 Anti-Drug Law, on paper at least, appears to be written based on the principles of sound rehabilitation. It calls for a three stage approach to treatment: physical detoxification, mental rehabilitation and social integration. The law states that “No managerial persons of the…centers for drug rehabilitation may inflict corporeal punishment on, or maltreat or humiliate the persons receiving treatment for drug addiction.”
Yet in practice, the lofty sounding rhetoric is not being observed. The law does not provide guidelines to ensure that the nonviolent treatment is practiced. “There is no attempt to address the common practice of detainees inflicting violence on other detainees at the behest of the guards,” says the report. The interviewees described a system whereby the guards avoid being charged for beating someone to death by instigating other detainees to do it.
Further, HRW said that there is nothing in place that sets forth a standard regimen on drug dependency and psychological counseling. The new law provides for the police—“officials of the security agencies”—rather than medical professionals to make key decisions on determining the severity of drug addiction and whether to confine an individual to a compulsory drug detention center.
Another weakness in the new law is the lack clarity on how “community-based” treatment is defined and implemented. HRW found a document from China’s National Narcotics Control Commission that defines the period of community treatment as no more than three years. If community treatment becomes part of the health regimen, it would add up to three years beyond the two to three years in the compulsory treatment centers.
So, while the Anti-Drug Law abolished the hated RTL system for drug users, it extended the minimum sentence to two years, with a possible addition of three more years. Human Rights Watch said that they heard from numerous sources that the “conditions in drug detention centers are identical to RTL centers,” and that the only change was in the name.
Denial of Treatment May Constitute Torture
The conditions in the compulsory drug detention centers are “inhumane” and “threatening to [the] health” of the detainees, according to former detainees and NGO workers. One former detainee said, “In our local drug detention center there is no medication to help you [with withdraw], but you have to pay for it and no one has that money. So it’s like there’s no medication at all.” Another told HRW: “There is nothing to help quitting drugs, not even methadone which we can take on the outside.”
HRW could not verify the frequency of deaths while in custody or within a few weeks after release, but was uniformly told by former detainees that this is the fear when someone goes into a compulsory drug detention center. They know he or she may never come out alive.
The goal isn’t therapeutic. “The point of being put in a drug center is not to quit drugs, it is to work. There is no medicine to take when you get in…They don’t put us there to get healthy, they put us there to work,” said a detainee.
Even people with HIV/AIDS and TB have almost no access to health care in the drug detention centers. One former detainee told HRW that he worries for his friends because now sentences are at least two years long, and they go without good AIDS treatment, if any treatment inside. He told them, “They are HIV positive, they don’t have good nutrition, and they die.”
The denial of treatment to drug users who have to forego their freedom in drug detention centers violates both Chinese law and international law. UN Special Rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak observed that withdrawal can be severely painful “if not alleviated by appropriate medical treatment, and the potential for abuse of withdrawal symptoms, in particular in custody situations, is evident.”
Withholding adequate health or medical treatment may constitute or contribute to “inhuman or degrading treatment,” under the Convention against Torture, says the report.
Police Harassment and Discrimination
Current and former drug users face discrimination in the community, and this makes it difficult for them to fund employment. The problem is aggravated by the state’s official discrimination, where it requires drug history be linked to one’s national identity card. Anytime the person needs to use his identity card—applying for a job, checking in a hotel, accessing methadone treatment or other harm reduction services—he can be subjected to a urine test.
The report describes a former IDU checking into a hotel. He was awakened in the middle of the night by the police, who broke into his room, handcuffed him, and took him to the police station to take a urine test.
“Every former detainee interviewed reported that discrimination makes it almost impossible to find employment, either because ‘drug user’ is linked to the national identity card or because other members of the community reveal the person’s identity as a former drug user,” says the report.