BRUSSELS - Equipment designed for torturing prisoners is still being exported from European Union (EU) countries despite a four-year-old ban on such trade, according to a new report by Amnesty International.
The human rights group has found that companies active in several of the EU's 27 states have exploited loopholes in controls aimed at putting an end to the selling of instruments of torture.
The EU rules - in force since 2006 - need to be widened to cover a number of devices that remain outside their scope, Amnesty has argued. It highlights how Nidec, a company trading from Spain, has been dealing in 'stun cuffs' in the past few years. Intended for restraining a detainee by placing them around his or her limbs, such cuffs inflict a painful electric shock. Unlike similar "stun belts", the cuffs are not explicitly banned by the EU's rules.
Brussels officials say that the new report should trigger a discussion about how the rules can be strengthened. One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained that no action has been taken to date because a newly appointed European Commission, the EU's executive arm, only assumed office in February. "For the time being, everything is rather open," the source told IPS. "This is not because we like loopholes, it is quite simply because a new team has been getting started."
But Amnesty's specialist on the EU's foreign policy David Nichols described those comments as "a convenient excuse for inaction." He said that human rights groups had brought the flaws in the EU's rules to the Commission's attention long before now and that its staff had ample power to rectify the situation.
Furthermore, the report finds that national authorities in some European countries are continuing to issue export licences for torture equipment. Both Germany and the Czech Republic approved exports to nine countries - including Georgia, Pakistan, India and China - where the security forces had previously used the equipment concerned for torture between 2006 and 2009. Among the equipment were chemical sprays, shackles and electric shock weapons.
The Amnesty study also finds that EU governments are not being sufficiently transparent about how they are implementing the rules. While each government is required to produce an annual report giving details of applications from traders to sell torture equipment, just seven have done so until now. These are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Slovenia, Britain and Spain.
Brian Wood, another Amnesty campaigner, said: "We fear that some states are not taking their legal obligations seriously."
As part of the 'war on terror' declared following the Sep. 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. has used leg irons and leg cuffs on prisoners held in Afghanistan and Cuba's Guantanamo Bay. One of these detainees Abu Zubaydah has told the International Committee of the Red Cross of how these shackles pulled painfully on his ankles after his jailers repeatedly slammed him against a wall.
While Spain and Britain have banned the exports of leg irons, leg cuff and gang chains, companies based in other EU member states appear to have been selling some of these instruments. During the 2008 Eurosatory, an annual arms fair held in Paris, the French firm Rivolier exhibited such cuffs on its promotional stand.
The EU's rules stipulate that cuffs of this nature should be controlled but nonetheless allowed to be sold in certain cases. According to Amnesty, these rules should be revised so that the trade in any leg restraints deliberately designed to cause discomfort is banned.
Michael Crowley from the Omega Foundation, which conducts research on human rights issues, noted that all of the EU's countries are nominally opposed to torture. "As part of their commitments to combat torture wherever it occurs, member states must now turn their words into deeds," he said. "They must impose truly effective controls on the European trade in policing and security equipment and ensure that such goods do not become part of the torturer's toolkit."
The Amnesty report also says that some EU member states are themselves using devices which are meant to cause pain to prisoners. In the Czech Republic, restraints have been used to chain detainees to a wall or a fixed object, even though the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental body dedicated to upholding human rights, has deemed the practice as "totally unacceptable". Eltraf Bis, a Polish company, has also been found to have sold handcuffs intended to be connected to walls.
Amnesty argues that such devices can be clearly distinguished from devices required to restrain hospital patients in some cases of medical necessity and that they should be prohibited.