Where darkness knows no limits

This month Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report detailing the experiences of former detainees in the drug detoxification centers in China's Yunnan province.

In the past, drug users were sentenced to reeducation through labor (RTL), forced labor camps where they were denied basic health care and subject to physical abuse. The new Anti-Drug Law of the PRC issued in June 2008 appeared to at least superficially mark an improvement. Drug users were now to be placed in drug detoxification centers, where "drug treatment and rehabilitation is in accordance with human-centered principles" the Office of China National Narcotics Control Commission claimed.

However, HRW's findings lead them to proceed to refer to these detoxification centers as drug detention centers, due to the dire conditions patients face in these establishments, such as compulsory detoxification, lack of medical care and endless hours of forced labor. The conditions reported by HRW seem to echo those of the old system, despite the new name. Detention, also because these centers are not run by medical professionals, but by the Public Security Bureau.

 The centers aim to complete three necessary stages toward patient rehabilitation: physical detoxification, mental rehabilitation, social integration.

In terms of the first stage, drug users are detained for a minimum of 2 years under the new law, far exceeding the time required for physical detoxification and more closely resembling punishment. This can be increased by one year if detoxification is not 'successful', and can be followed by the ambiguous 'community-based' treatment (which could mean further detainment) for another 4 years. Furthermore, the detoxification centers are described as lacking the most basic health care facilities and thus become incubators for infectious disease and actively contribute to the deterioration of detainees' health. As one detainee puts it, "the point of being in a drug detention center is not to quit drugs, it is to work...they don't put us there to be healthy, they put us there to work."

Under conditions mirroring those found in RTL camps, it is evident why the second stage, mental rehabilitation is hardly achievable. Former detainees who spoke to HRW report they were treated "like animals" and intimidation and physical abuse were part of their day-to-day lives.

As for social reintegration, a previous report on China's Gaungxi province in 2007 is titled the "Unbreakable Cycle", an accurate depiction of the 'life cycle' of detaineees. Those who do make it out of drug detoxfication centers alive are subject to "unbearable stigmatization when released back into the community, unemployment, discrimination, poor health, and finally, in hopelessness, a return to drug use". In accordance with policies, police are alerted of every move former detainees make, such as when they try to apply for a job or access harm reduction services, further increasing stigma. Arrests for suspicion of drug use appear fairly arbitrary left to the fine judgment of police officials, increasing as 'sensitive' calendar dates approach or arrest quotas need to be filled. Thus, former detainees could easily come full circle and be returned to detainment in the detoxfication centers.

According to HRW the theoretically positive new law translates ambiguously into practice where it is not only in violation of Chinese law, which requires detainees to receive "medical treatment and psychological treatment", but also international human rights law.