The Torture Trade

by Robert Weissman

Multinational Monitor magazine, April 2001


The international commercial trade in torture equipment is thriving.

So concludes a new Amnesty International report, which shines a spotlight on the makers of law enforcement equipment and how their devices are used by torturers around the world (including in the United States).

Amnesty has compiled a list of more than 80 U.S. manufacturers and suppliers of electro-shock weapons and restraints. Amnesty does not allege that any one or another of these companies is involved in the international trade in equipment used in torture. But Amnesty's report, "Stopping the Torture Trade," does provide numerous examples of U.S. products being used by torturers overseas, as well as in the United States.

The Khiam detention center, closed in May 2000, "had been run by the South Lebanon Army, Israel's proxy militia in the former occupied south Lebanon, with the involvement of the Israeli army, but the handcuffs used to suspend detainees from an electricity pylon where they were doused with water and given electric shocks were clearly marked 'The Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA,"' Amnesty reports.

In a letter to Amnesty, Peerless expressed disgust that its products were used in the Khiam prison, stating, "In no way does Peerless Handcuff Company condone or support the use of our products for torture or for any other human rights abuse.... We have not sold any restraints to the Israeli government or Israeli companies in almost 10 years."

Asked if Peerless take steps to control the sale of equipment to torturers, a company spokesperson says, "We restrict our sales as best we can to what we know are legitimate law enforcement authorities."

Asked if the company has refused sales to "legitimate" law enforcement authorities who are known torturers, the Peerless spokesperson says the company refuses to sell to, among other countries, China, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, and has turned down sales requests from these and other nations.

"We have no interest in promoting" sales to torturers, the Peerless spokesperson says. But, he adds, "I don't think manufacturers can be held responsible" for misuse by law enforcement agencies.

The Peerless case is not unique.

Amnesty says it has "received numerous reports in recent years of the use of shackles and handcuffs in the torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Saudi Arabia. Several former prisoners have described how the security forces used restraints in coercing confessions." Several of the prisoners have reported that the restraints were stamped with the name of the U.S.-based Smith & Wesson or with Hiatts, a UK company.

"Stopping the Torture Trade" focuses as well on electro-shock weapons, which have been used to torture or ill-treat people in at least 76 countries, including the United States, over the last decade.

"Electroshock devices have been deliberately, and often repeatedly, applied to prisoners' mouths, genitals and other sensitive parts the body," the Amnesty report says. "Electro-shock torture is often combined with other forms of torture and ill-treatment, including psychological torture."

A new electro-shock technology is the stun belt, which is worn by a prisoner and remotely activated by the incarcerator, from as far as 100 yards away. Atypical stun belt delivers an eight-second shock of 50,000 volts, according to Amnesty.

"The belt relies on the prisoner's constant fear of severe pain being inflicted at any time while held in a situation of powerlessness," Amnesty says.

The leading U.S. manufacturer of stun belts says exactly the same thing.

Stun Tech literature says, "After all, if you were wearing a contraption around your waist that by the mere push of a button in someone else's hand, could make you defecate or urinate yourself, what would you do from the psychological point of view?"

Amnesty quotes Dennis Kaufman, president of Stun Tech as saying, "Electricity speaks every language known to man. No translation necessary. Everybody is afraid of electricity, and rightfully so."

Amnesty International is urging the United States and other governments to ban the use, manufacture, promotion and trade of police and security equipment whose use is inherently cruel, inhuman or degrading. The group includes leg irons, electro-shock stun belts and inherently painful devices such as serrated thumbcuffs in this category.

Amnesty is also calling for a suspension on the use and trade in devices, such as electro-shock equipment, whose medical effects are not fully known.

And the group is calling for a suspension of trade in equipment that has shown a substantial risk of abuse or unwarranted injury, including legcuffs, thumbcuffs, restraint chairs and pepper gas weapons.

"It is crucially important that the United States act immediately in these areas," says Amnesty International USA spokesperson Alistair Hodgett. "The United States has led the way in the development of new technologies used in torture, such as electro-shock devices. After export, they have quickly been replicated and spread around the world."

Such regulatory measures as advocated by Amnesty seem reasonably achievable in the United States. Law enforcement equipment that can be used for torture is made and supplied primarily by small equipment makers and even smaller suppliers and distributors with little political clout.

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