The Torture Trade
by Robert Weissman
Multinational Monitor magazine, April 2001
The international commercial trade in torture equipment is
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
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
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
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
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
"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.