A deadly business jolts into the light

New report by Amnesty International highlights the growing worldwide trade in instruments of torture

The global spread of electric-shock weapons poses a moral question for humanity: What should it do with technology designed to do good but easily misused for torture?

This debate is likely to get fiercer as military scientists around the world develop new weapons designed to disable rather than kill. The issue could quickly come to the fore in the United States. Just as human rights activists are gearing up to battle the industry, US police departments are rapidly deploying a new-generation stun device that its manufacturer hopes will become standard equipment on the gun belt of every policeman.

This week, a human-rights organization stepped up the pressure, releasing a scathing report on how such weapons have been used for torture worldwide. "What we know is that the use of this is widespread," says William Schulz, executive director for the US branch of Amnesty International.

In the 1980s, 30 companies around the world were known to manufacture or distribute stun equipment. By last year, Amnesty had found more than 130 companies involved in the business. In the past decade, police have used electro-shock devices to torture or ill-treat people in at least 76 countries, including the US. "This figure is almost certainly an underestimate," the report concludes.

At the center of the debate lies a three-decades-old American technology invented with a noble purpose. The idea: give law enforcement a way to disable people temporarily without causing permanent damage. That way, police could easily handcuff suspects resisting arrest; prison officials could move defiant criminals who had barricaded themselves in their cells. The TASER - a dart-throwing, electricity-dispensing gun - was born.

"It's really quite humane," says Barry Resnick, chief executive officer of Tasertron, the Newport Beach, Calif., manufacturer linked to the original TASER. The weapon discharges electricity that incapacitates people for a few seconds. "It's better than a baton. It's better than being shot by a gun."

The original TASERs didn't work well and earned a poor reputation among police departments. In the early 1980s, another US company, Nova Products, began producing a variant known as a stun gun. Instead of shooting darts, the device zapped people who came in contact with its two metal probes. Besides police departments, consumers began snapping up the devices for personal protection.

By the late '80s, cheaper stun guns made in South Korea and Taiwan began washing up on US shores. Today, consumers can buy low-end imported models for $30.

Unfortunately, stun technology has a dark side. The same features that make it useful for police also make it handy for torturers. The devices inflict pain usually without permanently incapacitating or physically scarring their victims.

"Of course, many other instruments of law enforcement can be misused," says Dr. Schulz of Amnesty International. "The problem with stun weaponry is that it's so easy to misuse without detection."

For example: After 33 years in prison, Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso managed to smuggle Chinese torture instruments into India, including a stun gun variant known as a stun baton. "This is the worst thing," he told Amnesty International. "If they press that button, your whole body will be in shock. If they do it for too long, you lose consciousness, but you do not die. If they press this button, you can die. They used it all the time on my body."

While the worst abuses appear to occur in states such as China and Burma where legal protections are weak, Amnesty International has also cataloged incidents of US abuse as well as US exports to regimes with bad human-rights records. Five states (Michigan, Hawaii, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Massachusetts) and a few cities (Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Annapolis, Md.) have banned the use of stun weaponry for civilians and police. A related technology - the stun belt used to control prisoners during transport and court appearances - has also drawn charges of inappropriate use.

Last year, the UN Committee Against Torture concluded that the use of electric stun belts almost inevitably violates the international treaty against torture. Amnesty International has called for a ban on stun belts, the suspension of sales of TASERs and stun guns until an independent study concludes they're safe and tougher export controls exist.

The ethical dilemma lies in balancing the offsetting claims. If the technology saves more people from injury than it tortures, should it be banned?

"It's not a problem of the tool," argues Larry Gould, professor of criminal justice at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The problem is the lack of disciplinary action against law-enforcement officers who use them to hurt prisoners. "That's probably less than 5 percent of the police officers. But that 5 percent can cause you some real headaches."

Two years ago, Maricopa County, Ariz., agreed to an $8.25 million settlement in the wrongful death suit of a man who was stunned by detention guards and later accidentally asphyxiated.

Although many police don't trust stun weapons, TASER International's latest model has been sold to 600 police departments in North America in the past 13 months. "We want to get this on the belt of every officer," says Stephen Tuttle, the company's director of government affairs.

The new technology is more powerful and, significantly, includes devices that record where and when a particular weapon was fired. That feature came in handy last week when a Phoenix-area inmate charged police had used a TASER on him repeatedly. When TASER International downloaded the information from the weapon, it found it had been fired only once. "That's probably going to save a lawsuit," Mr. Tuttle says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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