US Exporting ‘Tools of Torture’

The administration of US President George W. Bush is violating the spirit of its own export policy by approving the sale of tools to countries known to use them to torture detainees, according to a new report released here Tuesday by Amnesty International.

In 2002, US exports of electroshock weapons and restraints that can be used for torture amounted to some $14.7 million and $4.4 million, respectively, according to the report, titled "The Pain Merchants."

Along with the sales of such equipment, Washington is also reported to have handed over suspects in the "war on terror" to the same countries, the 85-page report said.

"Although torture is endemic in Saudi Arabia, Smith & Wesson had no qualms about exporting approximately 10,000 leg-irons to Riyadh, and, apparently sharing this lack of concern, the Bush administration approved the sale," said William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty’s US branch, AIUSA.

"For decades, human-rights groups and the US State Department have documented Saudi Arabia’s cruel use of leg-irons and shackles to inflict torture and force confessions. With this shameful shipment, we can expect the torture of religious minorities and peaceful protesters to continue for years to come."

The United States is not the only exporter of such police- and security-related equipment that, while not lethal, can inflict severe pain and amount to torture when used improperly, according to Amnesty. Worldwide, some 856 companies in 47 countries either manufacture or market such devices.

Indeed, Asian companies – particularly those in Taiwan, China, and South Korea – dominate the electroshock market.

"Just because security equipment may be described as ‘less than lethal’ does not mean it cannot be abused, nor that it cannot injure or kill," said Brian Wood, Amnesty’s expert on crime-control devices. "We are extremely concerned that in many countries devices are being authorized for use on the population without sufficient investigation of their effects on human rights."

In recent years, the US government has taken steps – most importantly the adoption of an export policy that requires licenses to sell or ship electroshock equipment to all countries except Canada – to reduce the likelihood that devices manufactured here will be sent to countries where they are used to torture or otherwise inflict harm.

Similarly, the European Commission (EC) has drafted regulations that would ban the export from member states of equipment whose primary practical purpose is torture – such as leg irons and stun belts – and impose tight restrictions on the export of equipment that may have a legitimate policing purpose but which could be used for torture, such as electroshock stun weapons and tear gas.

But the EC’s policy has yet to be adopted, while US license requirements are not being seriously enforced, according to AIUSA, which noted that in 2001 the government approved three sales of electroshock devices to Turkey, despite the State Department’s finding that such weapons were widely used for torture there.

In one 2002 case, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who was detained for distributing leaflets calling for the legalization of Kurdish education was stripped, threatened with rape and tortured with electric shocks to her feet, legs and stomach, according to Amnesty.

"The US needs to completely close the loopholes that have allowed the resupply of this technology to countries that torture," said Maureen Greenwood, AIUSA’s advocacy director in Europe. She noted that Reps. Tom Lantos and Henry Hyde are currently working on legislation that places restrictions on crime-control exports to foreign governments known to use torture.

Amnesty said it was also concerned about other "crime-control" weapons, such as sedative chemical incapacitating agents like the one that killed more than 120 hostages when Russian security forces ended a siege in a Moscow theater last year.

Amnesty also noted that new technologies, many of which are being developed as part of the US "war on terror," may also be used to inflict torture and should be very carefully reviewed for their possible abuse.

These include radio-frequency weapons that may induce an artificial fever; "chemical stench;" taser mines that could deliver a 50,000-volt shock to anyone within a certain radius; and UV lasers that can ionize the air to also deliver an electric charge.

Amnesty stressed that most of these weapons are not intended to inflict torture but can be used to do so. "It’s possible to use anything for torture," the president of a US manufacturer of electroshock riot shields told Amnesty. "But it’s a little easier to use our devices."

A three-year-old study by the London-based group found that torture has been reported in all but about 35 countries worldwide and that there are more than 70 countries in which torture has been reported to be widespread or persistent.

In more than 80 countries, including the United States, deaths have been reported as a result of torture. In the US case, for example, a man died after being "tasered" a dozen times, each time with a 50,000 volt shock, by deputy sheriffs in Florida.

The US Department of Commerce last year approved licenses for exports of discharge-type weapons, including electroshock stun guns, shock batons, and similar devices, to 45 countries, among them a large number where the State Department has reported the use of torture against detainees, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, Honduras, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, and Venezuela.

More than 60 US manufacturers sought licenses to export such equipment during 2002.

AIUSA said it feared that some manufacturers actually ignored the licensing requirement and shipped such equipment directly to the buyer. Indeed, a recent investigative report in US News & World Report found that several small companies freely advertise at various Internet Web sites how to circumvent exports rules for stun guns by, for example, shipping parts separately.

One World

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.