This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

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.

Monday, March 14, 2005

It's boom time for arms dealers

As responsible citizens, we have to choose between public rights and public protection, which is why I propose that anyone who looks like Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, should be stopped and searched by the police. Some innocent people may be caught in the net but we can't risk her launching further attacks upon our liberties. I also believe we should forcibly attempt to remove the wasp or bee that she appears to be chewing.

My other fantastic plan is to run scientific experiments to test the logic of some of our more popular expressions. For example: "Britain is full up - we can't have any more people coming in." Those who believe that will be placed in the middle of Dartmoor with no phone, money or survival kit and told: "Seek help from the first person you encounter."

Another example is: "Guns don't kill people; people do." Those who believe that statement will be divided into two groups. One will be attacked by people wielding AK-47s and the second by people wielding other people, like clubs, in an aggressive manner. The survival ratio should give us a pretty good clue as to the truth of the original statement.

If guns don't kill people, why does the Ministry of Defence give them to the army? Surely, we'd be better off arming our troops with jellyfish and catapults. At least that way our boys could cause a nasty sting. And given a good bit of elastic they could cover 50, maybe 60, metres.

However, though Labour ministers talk tough on arms control, we might as well be at the "guns don't kill . . ." stage of the argument. Patricia Hewitt, you will remember, became "uber-corporate bribe mistress" at the Department of Trade and Industry last year when the DTI caved in under pressure from BAE Systems to water down official anti-corruption measures. This move was challenged successfully by the Corner House, the human rights and environmental NGO, and the matter settled out of court. So much for a tough regulatory stance.

Hewitt now plans to make it even easier for the arms dealers by introducing deregulation by stealth, and there are three ways by which it could happen.

First, she is cutting staff at the Export Control Organisation. To the casual conservative bystander, this might seem like a bit of winter trimming on the bureaucratic bonsai tree of red tape. However, the ECO is the body that approves licences for arms sales, both military-goods and dual-use. Ministers, if you bother to ask them, will say that the most important part of arms control is the licensing, so let's take them at their word and put aside the bizarre exports that have been approved, from Hawk jets for Indonesia to military air-traffic control systems for Tanzania that were criticised by the World Bank. If the ECO is so important, why cut staff by 25 per cent? After all, we're talking about licences for machines that take people's lives.

The criticism here doesn't come just from liberal hand-wringers, but even from the arms industry. The Defence Manufacturers Association is "deeply concerned" at the prospect of ECO cuts. The association's Brinley Salzmann said: "The last thing we want is for the system to become more arbitrary."

Second, Hewitt is considering privatising the ECO. Which would be a disaster. From the London Underground backlog in repairs and train-company subsidies to racist detention-centre staff, privatisation has been wrong. If the ECO follows the government's past form on privatisation, it will be flogging arms licences from the back of a van quicker than you can say "it's an undercover film crew from the BBC."

And once again the DTI is condemned by the defence manufacturers, who point out that whichever company takes the contract, whether Ernst & Young or Capita, is bound to have clients who apply for dual-use or military-goods licences, or will be bidding for contracts with companies that apply for them. And so there will be an inherent conflict of interest.

Third, rumour has it that the DTI is considering making an existing loophole even bigger. An open individual export licence enables a company to export a range of military goods to a country without applying for individual licences. This means that the final destination of the goods is not known: it could be a private arms dealer or it could be a government. In short, the government does not actually know what arms are being moved and in what quantities, unless it specifically checks them. Sir Richard Scott, in his inquiry into arms to Iraq, specifically noted the possibilities of abuse under these licences. Hewitt, it appears, is considering extending the life of a licence from two years to five - thus making any potential abuse even easier.

For all the talk of fighting corruption and the toughest regulations in the world, Hewitt is beginning to prise open the gates to an arms bazaar.

The DTI was unable to comment on the matter by the time we went to press.