Trading In Shock
Torture / TRADE
'Roberto', a 50-year-old university professor, is arrested by the state security forces. His torture begins. Initially his captors beat him with sticks. But an officer stops them, saying: 'It will leave scars and we will get complaints from Amnesty International.' Instead he orders his men to use an electroshock baton.
Torturers around the world prefer the cold blue sizzle of electroshock equipment precisely because they believe it will not leave permanent marks as evidence on their victims' bodies.
'This time they worked on me again with the electric baton on the nape of the neck and in the genitals and it hurt so much that even now when I speak it is difficult to keep my head still as the back of my neck hurts so much. This type of weapon. I could really call it something really horrible - immoral - because those people who make it for torture, they don't test it on their own bodies and they don't know the pain it causes. They do it to make other people suffer, quite simply to make money.'
Roberto was arrested and tortured in Zaire - now the Democratic Republic of Congo - in 1991. Yet nearly a decade later, despite international treaties and conventions banning torture, a number of countries throughout the world have failed to prevent the misuse of such modern high-pulse and high-voltage electroshock weapons. Far from it.
Since 1990 electroshock torture and ill-treatment have been reported in the prisons, detention centres or police centres of at least 58 countries including Angola, Algeria, India, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Yugoslavia and the US. In over 20 countries, hand-held electroshock batons specifically designed for use on humans have been used.
Electroshock stun technology was initially developed in the US during the 1970s and it still continues to lead the way in the trade. Amnesty International research has uncovered 78 US companies that have manufactured, marketed, bought or sold electroshock devices.
They come in many shapes and forms - shields, batons, stun guns, electroshock belts worn by prisoners, even 'tasers' which fire fishhook darts connected to wires and allow users to administer shocks from a distance. Though manufacturers claim that these high-voltage devices are medically safe, scientists have reported that they are quite capable of killing someone with a heart condition. Furthermore there is growing evidence of their use in electroshock torture.
The immediate effects of shock torture vary, but include severe pain, loss of muscle control, nausea, convulsions, fainting and involuntary defecation and urination. Muscle stiffness and long-term damage to teeth and hair have been documented as well as devastating mental effects such as severe depression and impotence.
A number of US manufacturers have seemingly sold these weapons without a second thought about the human-rights records of the buyers. One investigation of US Commerce Department documents published in Time magazine in April 1998 found that 'a dozen shipments of stun guns and shock batons' had been approved 'over the past decade to Saudi Arabia', a country where electroshock torture has been recorded.
But although electroshock technology may have begun in the US, it is now a global industry - and one that is out of control. During the last decade over 120 companies, operating in 22 countries, have manufactured, sold, advertised or sought to procure electroshock weapons.
In 1985 Amnesty International's investigations revealed that the Taiwan police had acquired electroshock batons from South Korea. Taiwan subsequently became a leading producer and exporter of electroshock weapons, with a Taiwanese company reportedly setting up manufacturing facilities in mainland China.
'This is the worst thing - an electric cattle prod. They use this on your body. If they press that button, your whole body will be in shock. If they do it for too long, you lose consciousness but you do not die. If they press this button, you can die. They used it all the time on my body. They tortured me because I was speaking out for independence and I will continue to speak out.'
These are the words of Palden Gyatso (right), a Tibetan monk who spent 33 years in Chinese prison and labour camps before fleeing, smuggling with him some of the favourite tools of the Chinese torturers.
In 1995 Britain's role in the trade to China was uncovered when the managing director of a Scottish company, ICL Technical Plastics, admitted selling electroshock batons to China in 1990, stating that 'the Chinese wanted to copy them'. Chinese factories now mass produce and export them. Reports indicate that Chinese companies have sold the weapons to Cambodia and Indonesia - both countries with documented cases of electroshock torture.
One of the people at the receiving end was Indonesian political activist Pius Lustrilanang. In February 1998 he spoke of his ordeal: 'I had electric shocks applied to my feet and hands for so long they had to change the batteries, and I became so weak I told them what they wanted.'
Despite the inherent dangers in the spread of these weapons, which can so easily be turned into instruments of torture, there appears to be little or no effective national or international regulation by governments of the trade. Recently the US authorities have reacted positively to proposals to ensure greater transparency and control in the trade of electroshock weapons. A step in the right direction. But still a long way before an outright global ban.
Michael Crowley is the Military, Security and Police Campaign Co-ordinator of Amnesty International.
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