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Trade in the tools of torture: The U.S. government OKs the export of shackles and stun guns

US News & World Report

The United States has permitted American companies to ship electric-shock weapons and mechanical restraints to 39 countries accused of torturing dissidents and detainees, according to a U.S. News review of export documents and State Department reports. The inquiry established that in the past two years, for instance, stun batons, stun guns, and similar devices were shipped to Haiti, India, Lebanon, and Turkey; the State Department has cited authorities in those countries for torturing prisoners with electric shock devices. Some companies have even found ways to ship their products overseas without seeking a government license, the inquiry found.

After being shown some of the 4,000 Commerce Department export documents obtained by U.S. News, Rep. Tom Lantos said he would introduce legislation to tighten controls and ban the export of such devices to countries where governments engage in torture. He would prohibit overseas sales of equipment such as thumb cuffs, leg irons, and stun belts. "This is a horrifying spectacle," says Lantos, a California Democrat and Holocaust survivor. "These are singularly unsavory governments that do not share our human-rights concerns." The European Union is considering similar export controls.

Horrors. The practice of torture is widespread, even in countries that are close American allies, such as NATO member Turkey. That country has been cited by the State Department for a host of horrific practices, including administering electric shock, dangling victims by their arms, and hanging sandbags on prisoners' necks. Nevertheless, the Commerce Department approved three licenses for exports of stun devices to Turkey in 2001. Human-rights activists are outraged. "How could the United States possibly grant an export for electroshock equipment transfers to Turkey," wonders Maureen Greenwood of Amnesty International, "when the State Department, Amnesty International, and Turkish parliamentarians have all reported a pattern of torture including electric shock?"

The answer: The Commerce Department has become little more than a rubber stamp for the more than 60 American companies looking to ship devices overseas. In addition to approving exports of electric-shock weapons, Commerce also signed off on the sale of restraint devices--which could include thumb cuffs and leg irons--to countries where torture by authorities was reportedly widespread. These countries include Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. It is difficult, however, to trace a specific device to a particular case of torture.

A U.S. company must apply to the Commerce Department for a license if it wants to export certain crime control equipment to any country except Canada. Prior to 2000, licenses were not required for some close allies, including Turkey. The department's "general policy" when enforcing the Export Administration Act is to deny applications for export to countries where there is a pattern of gross human-rights violations. Commerce also states that it does not look favorably on an application if there is civil disorder in the country.

U.S. officials say all license applications and foreign importers are carefully screened by the department as well as by other government agencies. "The Departments of Commerce and State, and in some instances Defense, review the proposed export--the item, the end user, and the country of destination--to decide the likelihood that an item will be used properly or misused," says Matthew Borman, a Commerce Department official.

Critics are also concerned about companies that try to export without a license. U.S. News found that a handful of small companies freely advertise on Web sites ways to circumvent export rules for stun guns. The department requires companies to obtain licenses to export the components of shock weapons. But businesses such as will sell a stun gun "kit," in which the parts are shipped separately. The Web site declares: "We have been highly successful in clearing them through foreign customs." Lee Norris runs the company out of his home with his wife in rural Browntown, Va. He says the kits are legal to export. "It's funny how those laws work," says Norris. Commerce officials, alerted to the practice by U.S. News, weren't amused--and promise to investigate.

Jolt. Companies argue that the restraints and shock devices are standard police gear and that they cannot be held responsible if the equipment is misused. Tom Smith, the president and co-founder of Taser International, says he and his brother, Rick, started selling stun equipment to help stop gun violence. Two of Rick Smith's high school friends were gunned down in a road-rage incident in Scottsdale, Ariz., Tom says. In 1994, the brothers began making stun devices--called tasers--later marketing them to police as "less lethal" alternatives to guns. The company's bestselling product fires two barbed darts up to 21 feet and jolts its target with 50,000 volts of electricity. A person at the receiving end is immobilized for several seconds. Police departments in cities like Phoenix, Seattle, and Los Angeles are customers. Company revenues hit $9.8 million in 2002, up from $6.9 million the year before. Total exports of shock weapons and restraints approved by the United States in 2002 were worth $19 million, according to Commerce.

The Scottsdale-based company has exported tasers to 59 countries. Several have been cited for torture by the State Department, including India, Peru, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. "There is no proof our products are used to torture people," says Smith. In June, Taser closed a deal to sell more than 3,300 tasers worth $1.5 million to the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces; that country hasn't been cited for torture.

Human-rights advocates admit that security weapons have legitimate uses. But the devices can be misused, too, says Allen Keller, a medical doctor and director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. "How can one ensure that these won't be used to torture someone?" Keller asks. His clinic has treated more than 1,000 torture victims, including some from countries where the Commerce Department approved licenses.

It's virtually impossible to say if a specific shipment of stun guns or leg shackles from the United States was later used for torture. Many countries export such devices. For proprietary reasons, the Commerce Department does not reveal the names of U.S. companies that receive licenses, or their customers. But critics warn that U.S. exports--even legitimate ones--could easily fall into the wrong hands without tighter enforcement. For instance, handcuffs made by Peerless Handcuff, a Springfield, Mass., company, were found in a Lebanese prison in 2000, according to Amnesty International. The company says it does not export to Lebanon. Amnesty reports that Smith & Wesson handcuffs were found to have been used in 1999 to torture detainees in Saudi Arabia.

Most of the time, though, no one knows who manufactured the tools of torture. In August 2002, Turkish police in the town of Hakkari reportedly blindfolded 28-year-old Zahide Durgun, tortured her with electric shocks to the ear, and beat her, according to Amnesty International. The police wanted Durgun, an ethnic Kurd, to say she belonged to a political party opposed to the Turkish government. Another Kurdish woman, Sukriye Beyter, was blindfolded and shocked days later at the same police station, according to Amnesty. These victims couldn't possibly be expected to be sure what device was used to make them suffer--or whether the implements of torture were made in America.

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