'Electricity speaks every language known to man. No translation necessary. Everybody is afraid of electricity, and rightfully so.'
Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited in all circumstances in international law. Yet every day in countries all over the world people are being tortured and ill-treated.
Much of the equipment used to inflict extreme pain and suffering has been around for years and continues to be sold on the international market with minimal restrictions. However, increasingly torturers are using weapons which exploit the latest technological developments, most notably high-voltage electro-shock stun weapons and chemical crowd control devices, such as pepper gas weapons. These weapons are being produced in ever greater numbers and their use and proliferation is spiralling out of control.
The U.S. has been at the epicentre of this new technology. Despite professing to oppose torture, the U.S. authorities have permitted these new devices to be marketed and sold to law enforcement agencies in other countries with a minimum of public scrutiny, with no proper impartial testing, and without regulation of design and use.
Stun weapons spreading
In the 1970s only two companies, one in the U.S. and one in the United Kingdom (UK) , were known to be marketing high-voltage electro-shock stun weapons. However, in the last two years Amnesty International, with assistance from the UK-based Omega Foundation, has discovered more than 150 companies which produce this sort of equipment. This has increased enormously the availability of such weapons to security forces that practice torture.
Companies which have produced or offered to supply electro-shock stun weapons in the last two years are known to have been operating in at least 22 countries, including Germany (30 companies), Taiwan (19), France (14), South Korea (13), China (12), South Africa (nine), Israel (eight), Mexico (six), Poland (four), Russia (four), Brazil (three), Spain (three) and the Czech Republic (two).
The range of electro-shock stun devices now available around the world has expanded throughout the 1990s and companies offering to supply them have sprung up in Austria, Canada, Indonesia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Philippines, Romania and Turkey. However, by far and away the largest producer and supplier of electro-shock stun weapons is the U.S.. Between 1999 and 2000, at least 97 U.S. companies were involved in this trade.
The U.S. government has allowed companies to export modern high-voltage electro-shock weapons to countries where electro-shock torture has been reported. For example, high-voltage electro-shock stun shields have been exported to Turkey, stun guns have been exported to Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia has received electro-shock batons and shields, and dart-firing taser guns.
Regrettably, the U.S. Commerce Department has not yet published meaningful export data for electro-shock weapons. However, what information is available is a clear indictment of the U.S.'s failure to ensure that such weapons were not being exported in situations where they could be used for human right abuses. For example, records under the export control commodity number A985 for the period 1997 to February 2000 show that export licences approved for Saudi Arabia for "optical sighting devices, stun guns and shock batons" were valued at some U.S. $3.2 million. This was despite the fact that the U.S. State Department's Report on Human Rights Practices stated that, in 1999, Saudi Arabian "security forces continued to abuse detainees and prisoners." Likewise, such exports to Venezuela received licences worth approximately U.S.$3.7 million despite the U.S. State Department citing cases of electro-shock torture and excessive use of force against protesters. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mexico and Bulgaria were among other recipients of export licence for large quantities of such weapons whose security forces were found to practice torture and ill-treatment.
The failure of the U.S. authorities to take into account the human rights record of the recipient country when considering applications for export licences for this sort of equipment clearly increases the risk of torture.
In September 1997 Mohammed Naguib Abu-Higazi was reportedly arrested by a State Security Intelligence (SSI) officer in Alexandria, Egypt, and accused of belonging to al-Gama'a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group). While held at the SSI office in Faraana, Alexandria, he was stripped of his clothes and given electric shocks from a "cylinder shaped stick with a spiral metal wire." He was also reportedly deprived of food for three days, kept blindfolded throughout the entire nine-day detention period and threatened with sexual assault. Between 1997 and March 2000, the U.S. approved the export to Egypt of electro-shock batons, stun guns and optical sighting devices valued at more than U.S.$40,000.
The U.S. may be the market leader, but it is by no means the only country which has shown an unwillingness to regulate the sale of electro-shock weapons effectively. For example, European Commission officials recently gave a quality award to a Taiwanese electro-shock baton, but when challenged could not cite evidence as to independent safety tests for such a baton or whether member states of the European Union (EU) had been consulted. Most EU states have banned the use of such weapons at home, but French and German companies are still allowed to supply them to other countries.
Another factor in the increasing availability of such equipment around the globe is the way some companies have devised strategies to evade or circumvent export restrictions. Sometimes, as in the case of Spain and the UK, companies have brokered the sale of electro-shock weapons entirely through foreign companies, claiming that this "off-shore" trade was legal even though the weapons were banned at home. Similarly, one major U.S. supplier of taser guns is now manufacturing them in Mexico where export controls are less stringent.
There are reports of such equipment, especially stun batons, increasingly being used to extract confessions and to intimidate and silence activists. While electro-shock batons, stun guns, stun shields and tear-gas stun weapons using up to 500,000 volts inflict severe pain, they leave few traces on the victim. The effects of electro-shock stun weapons are not well documented and can vary depending on what equipment is used, how it is used, and the physical characteristics and psychological state of the victim. From the accounts of victims, however, we do know that the immediate effects can include loss of muscle control, nausea, convulsions, fainting, and involuntary defecation and urination. The more lasting effects reported include muscle stiffness, long-term damage to teeth and hair, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.
The stun belt -- an inhuman and degrading weapon
The electro-shock stun belt is a U.S. innovation. It inflicts inhuman and degrading treatment. Amnesty International is calling for the manufacture, transfer and use of these belts to be banned.
The stun belt is unique among electro-shock devices in that it is worn by the prisoner, sometimes for hours at a time. The prisoner is therefore under a constant threat that it will be activated. The belt's electro-shock works by remote control; the police or prison officer using the device can be as far as 90 metres away. On activation, a typical stun belt delivers an eight-second shock of 50,000 volts. This high-pulse current enters the wearer's body at the site of the electrodes, near the kidneys, and passes through the body. The shock causes incapacitation in the first few seconds and severe pain rising during the subsequent eight seconds. The electro-shock cannot be stopped once activated. The belt relies on the prisoner's constant fear of severe pain being inflicted at any time while held in a situation of powerlessness. In the words of Dennis Kaufman, President of Stun Tech Inc, a U.S. manufacturer of stun belts: "Electricity speaks every language known to man. No translation necessary. Everybody is afraid of electricity, and rightfully so."
The U.S. was the first, and is still the biggest, manufacturer and supplier of electro-shock stun belts, but other countries which previously procured their belts from the U.S. have entered the market as suppliers. The speed of this proliferation is frightening. For example, in April 1998 the South African prison authorities were reportedly considering buying stun belts from the U.S.. In August 1999 information from South African prison officials confirmed that stun belts had begun to be used at a maximum security prison in Pretoria during the transportation of some prisoners. In August 2000 the South African High Commission in Singapore promoted the supply of stun belts and stun shields from a South African company.
Police and security forces also utilize an array of chemical devices, promoted on the grounds that they provide an alternative to lethal force. In reality, however, these chemicals are often misused, sometimes resulting in serious injury or even death. The most often reported forms of misuse are when the security forces using excessive force fire powerful chemical sprays and tear gas onto crowds in confined spaces or at individuals at close quarters in the street, or when prison officers spray individual prisoners.
New chemical sprays have been developed in recent years which have been promoted on the grounds that they are a "non-lethal" method of control. Once again, the U.S. is in the forefront of innovation. However, many of these chemicals have not been independently assessed and in many cases adequate measures against potential abuse have not been put in place. Since the early 1990s, more than 90 people in the U.S. are reported to have died in police custody after being exposed to OC spray. While most deaths have been attributed by coroners to other causes, such as drug intoxication or positional asphyxia, or are unexplained, there is concern that OC spray could be a factor in some cases. Reports suggest that the use of such sprays in other countries is increasing.
Another new weapon developed by a U.S. company is the "pepperball" which fires bursting pepper gas projectiles. It was used for the first time on protesters in Seattle in 1999 and the makers claim to have potential customers in Indonesia and South America. Amnesty International is calling for the international transfer of such sprays to be suspended pending proper independent tests.
Mechanical restraints used for torture
"The doctor came and said that yes, this baby is coming right now, and started to prepare the bed for delivery. Because I was shackled to the bed, they couldn't remove the lower part of the bed for the delivery, and they couldn't put my feet in the stirrups. My feet were still shackled together, and I couldn't get my legs apart. The doctor called for the officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming but I couldn't open my legs... Finally the officer came and unlocked the shackles from my ankles. My baby was born then. I stayed in the delivery room with my baby for a little while, but then the officer put the leg shackles and handcuffs back on me and I was taken out of the delivery room."
Maria Jones describes how she gave birth while she was an inmate of Cook County Jail, Chicago, U.S., in 1998.
In the U.S. it is common practice for prisoners and detainees to be shackled during transportation, with handcuffs attached to metal waist chains and, in many cases, with the legs or ankles chained together. It is common for shackles to be used on sick and pregnant women prisoners when they are transported to hospital and while hospitalized. This routine practice is applied regardless of whether the woman has a history of violence and regardless of whether she has ever absconded or attempted to escape.
Handcuffs, leg irons, legcuffs, shackles, chains, shackle boards, restraint chairs and thumbcuffs are some of the most widely used security devices. They are also widely misused. In every region of the world they have been used repeatedly and persistently to violate prisoners' human rights. Some of this equipment, such as leg-irons, chains and serrated thumbcuffs, are inherently cruel, inhuman or degrading when used on prisoners and should be banned.
Again, U.S. companies have been by far the most numerous suppliers of mechanical restraints, including leg-irons and thumbcuffs. Data for the period 1990 to 2000 obtained by Amnesty International with assistance from the Omega Foundation shows that of the 68 firms identified which offered to provide such devices, 42 were U.S. companies. Of the 15 manufacturers of such equipment identified worldwide, seven were U.S. firms. Other suppliers were found in Germany (8), France (5), China (3), Taiwan (3), South Africa (2), Spain (2), the UK (2) and South Korea (1).
Promoting torture expertise
Military, security and police expertise taught internationally has also been used to facilitate torture. Unless security training is strictly controlled and independently monitored, there is always a danger that it will be used to facilitate human rights violations. Unfortunately much of this training occurs in secret so that the public and legislature of the countries involved rarely discover who is being trained, what skills are being transferred, and who is doing the training. Both recipient and donor states often go to great lengths to conceal the transfer of expertise which is used to facilitate serious human rights violations.
A number of major powers are involved in selling security expertise to the military, security and police forces of foreign states. China, France, the Russian Federation and the UK are among the main providers of such training worldwide. However, once again the U.S. is a major player in this market.
It has been well known for some years that hundreds of graduates of the U.S. School of the Americas (SOA) have been implicated in human rights violations in Latin America. In September 1996 the U.S. Department of Defense released evidence that the SOA had used so-called "intelligence training manuals" between 1982 and 1991 that advocated execution, torture, beatings and blackmail. The manuals, written in Spanish, were used to train thousands of Latin American security force agents. Copies of these manuals were distributed in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru. Following a public campaign to close the SOA, the U.S. government has responded by renaming and reforming it. However, this military school is just one of over 150 centers in the U.S. and abroad where foreign officers are trained. Public information on the human rights content and impact of this training is minimal.
For more information, go to Amnesty International's Terror Trade Times
This article is based on a report -- Stopping the Torture Trade -- published in February 2001 by Amnesty International as part of its international campaign against torture (AI Index: ACT 40/002/2001).