A U.S. company has admitted for the first time that it exports equipment designed to inflict pain on prisoners to Europe.
Under rules in force since 2006, the European Union (EU) has outlawed trading in a range of instruments used for torture. Among the products expressly prohibitied is the 'Band-It' system; attached to a prisoner's arms or legs, it can administer an electric shock of 50,000 volts.
Despite the ban, the manufacturer of the device, Florida-based firm Stinger Systems, has acknowledged that it exports such goods to Europe. Bob Gruder, the company's president, refused to say which countries have bought this item.
"We only sell to military and law enforcement authorities," he told IPS. "Our products are sold worldwide but we prefer not to disclose where."
Stinger, formerly named Stun Tech, has distributors in several of the EU's 27 nations. The Romanian company Gate 4 Business has confirmed that it had imported some Band-It devices.
"We just took a few samples", said Gate 4 spokesman Cristian Anasteseu. "Romanian law considers it a lethal weapon."
Anasteseu added that he has not been a Stinger agent for "at least one year", and that he is now seeking to import a pepper spray for use in 'crowd control' by riot police after meeting representatives of Mace, the company making this tear gas, in Las Vegas earlier this year.
Last month the human rights organisation Amnesty International published a report highlighting how some companies have circumvented the EU's ban which explicitly refers to "stun belts" by giving products that have a similar effect a different name.
Nidec, a Spanish firm, had been offering "stun cuffs", which are also intended for attachment to a detainee's limbs, for sale. But the company told Time magazine recently that it had withdrawn such products from its online catalogue.
"Electric shock belts are on the banned list," said David Nichols, a foreign policy analyst in Amnesty's Brussels office. "What we have been saying is that there are other devices which are effectively the same that have been reclassified or renamed and traded as if they were completely legitimate, even though they have no other use than as torture instruments."
Stinger's flagship product is the S-200 stun gun, which it describes as a "smart" weapon intended to incapacitate someone who the police deem as dangerous by subjecting them to a shock of up to 56,000 volts. According to Stinger's Bob Gruder, the gun is less dangerous than one made by its rival Taser. "It's different technology," he said. "We can adjust on the fly, whereas with Taser you just have a predefined amount of voltage, without adjusting." Nobody has been killed or seriously injured as a result of the S-200 gun, Gruder claimed.
Falcon, a company headquartered in the Belgian town Beernem, confirmed to IPS that it acts as a distributor for Stinger, even though there is no mention of this fact on Falcon's website. Jean Nicodéme, Falcon's managing director, said that because Stinger's products are "strictly forbidden" in Belgium, only public authorities could have access to them. While an elite unit of the Belgian police acquired Taser weapons in 2009, Falcon said that it had not sold any of Stinger's guns to the country's law enforcement agents until now. "Our general policy is that we are not selling outside Belgium," Nicodéme added.
A spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs in Flanders, the predominantly Dutch-speaking community of Belgium where Falcon operates, said: "We deny licences for the import and export of everything related to torture. If a company importing such goods can prove that they will only be transferred to law enforcement people, then there is an exception in the law (to allow such transfers). These imports are rare."
Luc Mampaey from Grip, a Belgian group monitoring the arms industry, said nonetheless that he is "not satisfied with the position" of the Flemish government or other authorities in his country. "The problem is that there is little precision about these types of weapons in Belgium," he said. "Weapons that are considered less than lethal are a grey area in terms of the law."
Sirien, another Belgian company, has been named too as a Stinger agent. Yet it ceased advertising the S-200 stun gun on its website after the Amnesty report was published. "The problem with Amnesty International is that they only see the bad side to everything," Erwin Lafosse, a Sirien representative, told Time magazine in March. "Yes, these can be used to torture but so can all sorts of ordinary devices like knives, forks and spoons."
First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net)