In January, Indonesian police searched the home of Terbit Rencana Perangin Angin, the Regent of Langkat, after he had been arrested for allegedly receiving kickbacks for infrastructure projects. But what was meant to be a corruption investigation turned into something wider, when officers raided the expansive compound in North Sumatra surrounded by oil palm plantations. In the backyard lay two ornate fish ponds and poultry coops – and locked up near the chickens and birds were some 40 detainees, who peered at shocked policemen from behind the iron bars of their prison cells. As the probe expanded to include allegations of human rights abuses – including modern-day slavery, torture and illegal incarceration – Perangin Angin denied initial police suggestions he had been using the caged men as workers for his plantation. Instead, the regent claimed he had been running a rehabilitation centre for drug abusers, a claim corroborated by some locals speaking up in favour of a practice that has sparked debate in Indonesia . Covid-19 grounded planes, so drug traffickers in Southeast Asia took to the seas Drugs are viewed as a scourge in Indonesia, where individuals are usually handed custodial sentences when found with even small traces of banned substances. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in August 2020, more than 270,000 prisoners were housed in Indonesia’s 464 prisons, which were meant to accommodate a total of some 130,000 people. Over half of Indonesia’s prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offences. “Drug addiction is increasing in Indonesia and many people need treatment and rehabilitation,” according to Eka Prahadian Abdurahman, branch manager of the Addiction Recovery Community Association (Perkumpulan PEKA) in Medan, North Sumatra. PEKA runs community-based centres in Indonesia that provide voluntary, evidence-based drug treatments with a harm reduction perspective, but Eka Prahadian says it can be difficult for people who lack drug treatment literacy to know where to turn if they are looking for rehabilitation options. “Families who have relatives with drug addiction problems are becoming tired and confused about finding ways to heal. If cost is a factor, many families will look for a ‘free’ place to treat their children without understanding the different kinds of treatment available,” he said. How a US citizen got lost in Bali’s prison system Claudia Stoicescu, Associate Professor of Public Health at Monash University Indonesia, said the regent’s case was an “an example of insidious systemic corruption in the police and in the criminal justice system in Indonesia”. “In a legal and social environment such as Indonesia where drugs are viewed as an ultimate social evil, and those who use drugs are highly stigmatised and dehumanised, it is inevitable that inhuman and degrading treatment will occur,” she said. Stoicescu said the case required an independent investigation to crack down on the individuals and networks that allowed for the incarceration to happen, with serious consideration to the possibility that there were similar cases around the country. “But to prevent such torture and degrading punishment from occurring in the future, Indonesia must reform its drug laws,” she said. “Indonesian legislators should remove criminal and administrative penalties for drug use, including mandatory drug rehab – which is currently legal and widely practised – in favour of public health-oriented approaches.” Villager perceptions Amid the furore, some residents in Langkat who spoke to This Week in Asia , say they reject the accusation that locking up drug abusers amounts to “torture”. “I do not accept that the centre should be called a ‘torture chamber’ or that there was any modern slavery happening there,” said local resident R. Sembiring, who declined to give her full name. “My son recovered from using drugs after going there.” She added that three of her sons had recovered from drug abuse after being detained in the prison allegedly run by Perangin Angin, who did not charge her any fees for the treatment. J. Barus, a former drug user who said he had been treated there in 2019, told This Week in Asia he managed to overcome his yearslong drug addiction thanks to the generosity of the regent. He said he had been arrested several times by the police but had always returned to drug use after he was released from prison. “I am a living witness who went through the process at the Regent’s treatment centre,” he said. “We were never denied food as some media reports are saying. Now I am cured of my drug addiction. The media should ask people who were there rather than asking people who don’t know.” The Chinese suppliers fuelling America’s fentanyl epidemic But as police investigations continue, other details have emerged, including allegations of sexual assault experienced by some of the detainees, as well as human remains found in graves on the regent’s property. Eka said he had heard anecdotally through contacts that not every detainee at the regent’s alleged prison had a positive experience. While he said there was “no one method or approach that fits everyone, and the best rehabilitation programmes need to be tailored to the needs of the client”, the place allegedly managed by the regent was not designed for the purpose of drug rehabilitation. “Basic infrastructure and facilities, human resources for officers, and tailored programmes do not seem to have been available there,” he said. Asia’s Golden Triangle and the drug dealers who ruled its narcotics trade Eka also said the case risked casting genuine rehabilitation programmes in a bad light. “Now rehabilitation centres managed by the community or the private sector will be stigmatised so that rehabilitation is synonymous with ‘torture’ rather than therapy,” he said, adding that it was already a struggle to obtain funding for private rehabilitation centres in Indonesia. “I still don’t see enough government support. Support for people with drug addiction is still very limited and it is not covered by Indonesian state health insurance on the basis that this disease is actually the result of one’s own actions,” he said. Stoicescu noted those who had supported the regent’s alleged prison may have had complex reasons for speaking out. “Some factors to consider are the potential for internalised stigma around drug use and the shame it carries in Indonesian society, as well as fear associated with openly criticising authorities, especially when in relation to drug use and within a context of endemic corruption,” she said.