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Monday, March 28, 2005

Torture for sale on the web

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noted that the sale of stun batons from the UK was banned in 1997. You get full marks for legislative awareness if you knew that brokering - that is, acting as a middleman and arranging deals for goods that don't touch UK soil - became illegal without a licence on 1 May last year. Previously, if a UK broker moved guns directly from Thailand to Sudan, say, there was nothing that the UK authorities could do about it.

Now a New Statesman investigation has found a British company selling torture equipment: TLT International, which is run by Tony Lee in south London and sells electro-shock weapons. Last year, I wrote about the company's website, which advertised stun batons and stun guns. "Only by Bulk [sic] purchasing," it said.

What is so bad about stun batons, you might ask, although you would get points deducted if you did. Stun batons, according to Amnesty International, are "the universal tool of the torturer". When used for torture they cause extreme pain while leaving no marks on the body - and they have a habit of ending up discharging shocks in the vicinity of people's genitals.

The Department of Trade and Industry states "that a person may not [without licence] . . . do any act calculated to promote [their] supply or delivery". So merely advertising the batons on a website would be illegal - though there have been no test cases so far for the new brokering legislation.

Lee's website had pictures and brief descriptions of the weapons, which are manufactured in South Korea by Hanseung Electronics Inc. They range from the 18-inch stun baton at 300,000 volts to the mini stun gun, at just over four inches long with 100,000 volts. The website encourages those who are interested to "please make enquiries".

I accepted this polite invitation. Posing as arms buyers, I and a Kurdish colleague from Belgium, Osman Kilic, e-mailed TLTi asking to be put in contact with someone who could provide the batons. The reply was swift.

On 2 December, three days after our initial contact, Lee quoted to provide 500 stun batons at a price of $29.10 each, with an optional holster ($2 extra), which is a disturbingly low price for an electro-shock weapon - although it was not until we had exchanged some 14 e-mails, made four phone calls and had one meeting that Lee wrote that he had "forgotten to mention batteries are not included in all sales". So any torturer getting one for Christmas will have to beg their dad to nip down to the 7-Eleven for a pack of double As.

The stun batons come with a year's warranty on the equipment. This must be a comfort to purchasers, knowing that their statutory and consumer rights are not affected just because they happen to be torturers. Indeed, the stun batons even carry a CE mark, the European Economic Area's Kitemark. Lee is so confident of the quality of the product that he wrote: "The stun baton do not need much persuasions and explanations, it speaks by itself. Once Your [sic] clients buy it they would love it."

Ah! The clients! Where, you might ask, did Lee think he was exporting the electro-shock equipment? The answer is Zimbabwe. We warned him on 3 December that "the client is from Zimbabwe". Asked if he was happy for the goods to go there, he replied: "Yes I will sort it out . . . We will ship directly from Korea." The next day, he quoted the $29.10 price. He was prepared not just to break brokering laws on torture equipment, but to break EU arms sanctions into the bargain.

Lee is hardly an arms dealer of international notoriety, merrily pouring small arms into African conflict zones by the ton. In response to these allegations, he took down the website and said: "I was truly not aware of any legislation or licensing on this products [sic]." However, he did take measures to ensure that the UK authorities remained in the dark. "All shipment documents," he wrote, "will be done directly from Korea but all communications should be done through TLTi." In effect, this meant that there was to be no paper trail of the deal in the UK. At a meeting on 22 December in London, Lee passed over details of his private bank account number in Korea into which we were to pay the money. He would pay the company from that account. So the UK banking authorities wouldn't spot it either. In fact, Lee was quite happy to discuss how we would avoid detection by the UK authorities and even suggested that we sign the deal in Korea to make sure.

Although he described the batons as "personal protection products", he was made well aware that they were for "interrogations". Which shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, as Hanseung Electronics has, according to Lee, exported to a range of countries including Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, none of them noted for their kindly approach to imprisonment. The Amnesty International Report of 2003 states that in Egypt, "torture continued to be systematic and widespread in detention centres throughout the country . . . The most common methods reported were electric shocks."

That list of countries would soon expand if Lee had his way. In an e-mail dated 6 December, he wrote: "I have given a Nigerian company a sole sales agreement in Nigeria and West Africa. A large volume of order over the next three years would be expected soon." In another e-mail, he wrote: "This year [2004] in May and June, I went with two Nigerian officials and two members of the Nigerian company [Ovaltek] for Military kits supply, ie, Stun baton, Stun guns."

Nevertheless, when we put our allegations to him, Lee told us: "I've not made any single transaction or any penny from it. If I knew the relevant rules, I would not have tried . . . I would not do anything illegal . . . Now everything with these items have been removed."

Well, if he didn't make any money, it wasn't, as far as we can see, through lack of trying. The Nigerian authorities might be interested to know that Lee said he didn't think the senators' trip to Korea was an official visit and that "they will get a commission. You know what the system is like in Nigeria."

In the food chain of arms dealers, Lee is a bottom feeder. But if the authorities can't find and prosecute a man who openly advertised what he does on the web, what hope is there of taking on the bigger fish? Quite simply, new Labour cares more about arms sales than arms control. The Defence Export Services Organisation, working out of the Ministry of Defence, exists to promote UK arms sales. It has 161 people servicing deals for Saudi Arabia alone. This is one more than the entire staff of the DTI's Export Control Organisation, which licenses and controls every arms export from Britain. And its 160 staff are due to be cut to 120. In other words, there will soon be 33 per cent more government employees helping sell arms to Saudi Arabia than there are trying to control UK sales of arms across the world.

Until the government take arms control seriously, Lee and his like will continue unchallenged, BAE Systems will remain unprosecuted for alleged bribery and the Ministry of Defence will remain incapable of buying a helicopter that works.


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