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U.S. government watchdog criticizes probe into student detained for days

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A federal government watchdog criticized the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Tuesday for assigning agents suspected of misconduct to investigate the near death of a college student left in a holding cell for five days without food or water.

The student, Daniel Chong, says he survived by drinking his urine and spent three days in intensive care after the incident. His lawyers said he reached a $4.1 million settlement with the DEA last year.

The Office of the Inspector General said on Tuesday it was a conflict of interest for the DEA's San Diego Field Division to appoint to the investigation the same supervisor and case agents who were responsible for Chong's detention.

The University of California San Diego student, who is now 26, was arrested in April 2012 during a raid on a home where DEA agents suspected an ecstasy drug ring was operating.

They quickly determined Chong was not part of the trafficking gang and placed him in a holding cell, telling him he would be released soon. Instead, he spent five days handcuffed in the cell without food or water.

In a summary of a private report, the OIG, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, said it had identified four DEA employees who saw or heard the student during his detention.

"However, the employees told us there was nothing unusual about their encounters with Chong," the summary said.

It said the OIG was notified of the incident by an anonymous caller, and later by members of the public.

In a statement on Tuesday, the DEA's San Diego office said it remained deeply troubled by the "unfortunate incident."

It said the office had changed its policy and procedures in ways that closely mirrored recommendations from the OIG.

They included the routine inspection of holding cells, assigning an agent or task force officer to the holding area, and maintaining an occupancy ledger for holding cells.

It said the DEA was confident the measures would help prevent similar incidents in the future, but added that the Chong case "remains an ongoing internal disciplinary matter and we cannot comment any further." 

(Reporting by Marty Graham; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

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