The U.S. permits American companies to ship electric-shock weapons and mechanical restraints to 39 countries accused of torturing dissidents and detainees, says U.S. News & World Report. The magazine reports that in the past two years, 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 found ways to ship their products overseas without seeking a government license. California Rep. Tom Lantos plans to introduce legislation to ban the export of such devices to countries where governments engage in torture. “This is a horrifying spectacle,” says Lantos, a 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.
U.S. News says the Commerce Department has become little more than a rubber stamp for the more than 60 American companies looking to ship devices overseas. Commerce has 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 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. Commerce says applications are carefully screened. “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.
Companies argue that the devices are standard gear and that they cannot be held responsible if they are is misused. Tom Smith, president of Taser International, says he and his brother, Rick, started selling stun equipment to help stop gun violence. Two of Rick’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–marketing them to police as “less lethal” alternatives to guns. Their 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. 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.