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Two sides to this story

Bangkok Post

For the past several years, the United Nations has held up the example of Somsanga as a success story in the tough, usually thankless task of fighting drugs and drug abuse. It is the location and name of a centre in Laos, an alternative to prison for Lao drug abusers. The centre has gained a lot of favourable comment. The praise has of course come from its sponsors _ the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the governments of the United States and Laos. But it also has come from outside groups and individuals. Now, a credible human rights group has published a scathing report on the centre, claiming prison-like detentions, accompanied by violent guards and punishments amounting to torture.
The report Somsanga's Secrets was published last week by Human Rights Watch. HRW is a leading US-based watchdog, extremely active and publishers of numerous, almost countless reports on human rights abuses around the world. Example: Thailand has been in the HRW crosshairs more than 500 times since 1991. With that sort of output, HRW is likely to be wrong on the facts some of the time. The subtitle of the Laos report is ''Arbitrary detention, physical abuse, and suicide inside a Lao drug detention centre''. Such charges are sensational, to say the least.

It also appears that the serious and troubling allegations against the Laos centre originated with a US group, the Open Society Institute. That is an 18-year-old group founded by George Soros, one of a network of politically hard-left organisations supported by the Hungarian-born currency dealer. Mr Soros has few friends in this region, mostly because of his role, suspected but never proved, in the making of the 1997 recession and collapse of the baht and other Asian currencies. The Open Society Institute is a strong and predictable critic of the west, particularly the United States. Its political view is so suspect, in fact, that the criticism it started of Somsanga and other programmes in Thailand and Cambodia never was taken seriously, until HRW picked them up and expanded them.

But the HRW's slick, 77-page report on Somsanga is not entirely convincing. It uses the word ''torture'' seven times but never actually accuses anyone of it. Similarly, it alleges repeatedly that camp inmates ''may be beaten'' and HRW's co-director Joe Amon told the media that people at Somsanga ''are beaten and brutalised''. The report surfaces just one person who claims he was hit with a stick by another inmate. Similarly, it alleges that there have been attempted suicides, but does not document a successful one.

In many ways, then, this report is high on shock, low on facts. It contains serious and appalling descriptions of alleged misdeeds, inside a notorious prison. Upon examination, many or most of the charges are unsubstantiated. One can understand that compiling details of human rights abuses in an undemocratic country like Laos is difficult at best. But Somsanga is a facility where hundreds of outsiders have visited, and, until now, have been almost unanimously supportive of its management.

The government of Laos, the UNODC and the United States must have their day in the court of public opinion. HRW charges bring into question claims that this drug-abuse facility is merely trying to offer ''tough love'' to inmates. Past actions of the Lao government against its own citizens also make the charges credible. But if the charges by HRW are true, it would mean that hundreds of UN, US and international aid group members have, at best, shunned their duties. An investigation is warranted. But it is lamentable that HRW made such sensational accusations based on such flimsy allegations.

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