Electricity has long been a favorite tool of torturers. In many instances pain is still delivered the old-fashioned way, from cattle prods or wires connected to a car battery. But now human-rights workers are running across more cases in which high-tech devices based on American technology are used. Over the past decade, more than 100 companies have sprung up around the world selling small, handheld shock weapons, costing $200 or less, designed for police use. Tens of thousands of cheaper devices, many advertised as giving blasts of 50,000 volts or more, have also been sold directly to consumers.
For the past year, the human-rights group Amnesty International has waged a battle with manufacturers and governments around the world to curb commerce in these devices. Amnesty says electric-shock torture or the abuse of prisoners with shock devices has occurred in at least 50 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia. "Torturers seem to be discovering that electroshock stun weapons are ideal for their evil purposes--cheap, easy to conceal and hard to trace," says Brian Wood, who tracks the weapons internationally for Amnesty. TIME's own investigation found few international controls over the devices, along with disturbing evidence that stun guns from the U.S., Asia and Europe wind up in countries whose governments practice torture.
Americans first developed stun technology in the early 1970s as a nonlethal way for police to incapacitate violent criminals. Shaped like small flashlights or cellular phones and powered by store-bought batteries, stun rods deliver a series of millisecond-long shocks that cause muscles to contract, leaving the victim writhing and twitching on the ground. In the U.S., for example, Nova Products Inc., in Cookeville, Tenn., sells a Police Special to law agencies that delivers 75,000 volts from two metal tips at the end of the prod. Air Taser Inc., in Scottsdale, Ariz., manufactures an air gun that can zap an assailant 15 ft. away with two fishhook-like darts connected by thin wires to the power unit. Stun Tech Inc., in Cleveland, Ohio, produces an electrobelt that wraps around a prisoner's waist. If the prisoner becomes unruly, a guard pushes a button on a transmitter to deliver a searing charge straight to the kidneys.
Such devices are also, of course, perfect for torture. "The electricity is extremely painful, it can be controlled by the torturer, and it leaves very few incriminating marks," says Dr. James Jaranson, at Minnesota's Center for Victims of Torture.
Countries that practice torture have little problem finding suppliers. Taiwan exports shock batons to Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. German- and South African-made stun weapons have turned up in Angola and Egypt. Mexico is becoming a production and transshipment site for American and Asian stun devices. It has also begun attacking its own people with the weapons. Last September police turned fire hoses on 400 people protesting election fraud in Campeche. Members of the Cobras security force then waded in, jabbing protesters with 3-ft.-long shock sticks. "I fell to the ground, but they carried on giving me the shocks--on my breasts, vagina, stomach, legs, all over my body," says Layda Silva Sosa, 52.
A TIME review of Commerce Department documents shows that Washington has approved a dozen shipments of stun guns and shock batons over the past decade to Saudi Arabia despite that country's long history of brutalizing prisoners. American firms must obtain a Commerce Department license to export shock weapons to most countries, and officials say the applications are closely screened to block the items from falling into the hands of human-rights abusers. Yet Air Taser has been negotiating to supply thousands of electric-shock riot shields for crowd control to police in Turkey, where torture is "widespread," according to State Department human-rights reports. South Africa's new CMax prison for hardened criminals is considering buying Stun Tech's shock belt over the protests of human-rights groups, which complain that Nelson Mandela's government allows prisoner abuses.
"There are ways to get around" the controls, admits Commerce Under Secretary William Reinsch. A license isn't required for exports to NATO countries in Europe, where U.S. stun guns can be reshipped elsewhere. Air Taser has arranged for manufacturing facilities in Russia, Mexico and Taiwan to produce its weapons. Their export from those countries doesn't require U.S. approval.
Another way to avoid U.S. controls is called "drop shipping," say Customs Service agents. An American company barred from exporting stun guns directly to a foreign country pays a producer in a third country with loose export controls to ship the foreign weapons with an American label slapped on them. The U.S. company then bills the customer at a marked-up price and pockets the profit. Customs agents also suspect that many distributors simply file phony export-declaration forms and ship directly to problem countries. Last December, Yuri I. Montgomery, an Olympia, Wash., exporter, was indicted on charges of sending South Korean-made stun guns called Thunder Woman and Thunder Blaster to Macedonia in 1992 without Commerce Department approval. Customs agents are now investigating whether the weapons were reshipped from Macedonia to neighboring Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians have been tortured. The cases the Customs Service has uncovered are the tip of the iceberg. "There are definitely other companies in the U.S. doing it," says a Customs agent.
But manufacturers and many law officers argue that stun guns actually prevent worse abuse by police. Without a shock weapon, a cop is left with the choice of clubbing a dangerous criminal with a nightstick or shooting him with a handgun, which can cause more severe injuries. Indeed, law agencies in the U.S. have used stun guns thousands of times, and there have been relatively few documented cases of serious injuries. "These devices don't kill people," insists Nova's president, John McDermit. Rick Smith, Air Taser's president, has launched a publicity campaign to rebut Amnesty's charges. In restricting stun guns "that could save lives, we're actually degrading human rights," he argues.
Obviously much depends on how the devices are used. Even in the U.S., the record of shock weapons is far from unblemished. Prison guards in California, Arizona and Texas have been accused of tormenting inmates with stun batons. Five states have banned the devices. "It's one of those toys that enterprising manufacturers have developed that sound real good, but their potential for abuse is so great," says Armond Start, a professor at the National Center for Correctional Health Care Studies. And in the hands of a torturer, the "toy" can produce cruel, even fatal, results.