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26 September 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

Selling torture in London’s Docklands

It cost £4m to police the DSEi arms fair, but only a known troublemaker (right) could spot who was r

By Mark Thomas

As the photo above might suggest, the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi) arms fair in London this month was an interesting time for me. This mugshot from the CO11 Public Order Intelligence Unit is part of a “spotter card”, designed to help police identify troublesome protesters at the biennial arms-fest before they can commit any nefarious acts.

Each spotter card has pictures of 24 individuals, lettered A to X. I am, as you see, Suspect H. And I have just one thing to say to the police: I am delighted. Suspect H! Wanted by the police at the arms fair! This is the activist equivalent of an Oscar nomination, although my manager and agent, Ed, is furious; he has written the police a letter of complaint insisting that at the next arms fair I should have top billing and be labelled Suspect A.

The bill for protecting those attending DSEi 2005 from the hordes of anarcho-peaceniks came to £4m this year. Paradoxically, the arms industry, flogging its wares under the banner of making the world secure, refused to pay for its own defence and security. One of the DSEi staff said: “Of course, you wouldn’t have the police bill if protesters didn’t protest.” So maybe at the next arms fair the police can give their bill to the demonstrators. They could call it the protest charge, and Ken Livingstone could paint big red circles all over London with the letter P in the middle, indicating to demonstrators that they are entering a protest zone and should use their phones to pay the charge by credit card.

For all the security around the fair, however, it was neither the Metropolitan Police nor the DSEi – nor even compliance officers at the MoD – who discovered three firms at the arms fair dealing and brokering banned torture equipment. It was Suspect H.

On arrival at the fair, I was assigned an “escort” to accompany me around. Angus, a former standing military officer now in the Territorials and working in PR, was a charming minder in a Sandhurst-meets-the-Soviets kind of way. He escorted me everywhere; he even came to the toilet with me.

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Somewhere among the missiles and guidance systems, machine-guns and night vision goggles, I found Stall 704, occupied by an Israeli company, TAR Ideal Concepts Ltd of Tel Aviv. On display were three brochures, Riot Control, Homeland Security and Company Profile, offering for sale stun guns, stun batons and leg-irons, all of which are banned in the UK. Amnesty International describes stun batons as the “universal tool of the torturer”, and here they were, on offer to buy. I phoned later posing as a potential buyer, and TAR Ideal’s international marketing man, Michael Simon, arranged to meet me at the fair to discuss a deal.

He talked me through the new stun gun, which fires a liquid through which the electric charge is conducted, enabling the operator of the weapon to “treat a large number of persons at the same time”. Basically, you get sprayed and shocked at the same time. I bet torturers the world over will rejoice at the opportunity to torture so efficiently. Mr Simon was very helpful, even offering to remove the company’s name from the product and replace it with something else, should political sensibilities come into play.

A second company, Imperial Armour of South Africa, was at the fair selling body armour. Although there was no literature offering stun equipment, it is sold from the company’s HQ in Durban. I know this because I was quoted, by e-mail on 20 September, a price of E60.12 for a stun baton (“visible shock sparks act as added deterrent”), and the company staff offered, by e-mail on the same day, to schedule a meeting with Imperial’s named representative at DSEi to discuss a deal. (I still have those e-mails.) So, even when the weapons are not advertised on the stall, an arms trader is still ready to fix a deal under the counter in the UK.

Let me remind you of the law. According to two orders under the Export Control Act 2002, dated 2003 and 2004, “no person [in the UK] shall indirectly or directly do any act calculated to promote the supply and delivery” of controlled goods, even where the transaction is between two other countries. The 2004 order specifically identifies leg-irons and stun devices not just as controlled, but restricted, an even tighter category.

Although I was accompanied throughout my visit to the fair, DSEi took no action against TAR Ideal until Suspect H had informed the Guardian. It was only when that story appeared, on the final day of the fair, that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was called in. The stall was closed and taped off, and the company thrown out of the fair.

As new Labour delegates gather in Brighton, they will pay homage to Robin Cook. They might just remember that it was Cook who made the effort to outlaw the torture equipment. And they may even congratulate themselves on Britain having one of the world’s strictest sets of controls on arms sales. But, given all that, they should ask themselves how it was that no fewer than three companies attending the DSEi fair in London’s Docklands were dealing in or brokering restricted torture equipment.

After spending £4m on policing, our leaders still couldn’t catch the real criminals. That was left to a fat dad, comedian and police suspect. A law is only as good as its enforcement, and until the government genuinely commits time and effort to this, Labour’s attempts to control the arms trade will amount to nothing.

One last thing: the more alert readers among you will have noted that I have named only two companies at DSEi that were involved with electro-shock goods. The third company and its activities will be revealed during the Labour party conference, at an Oxfam-sponsored debate on the arms trade. There, I shall show the trade minister who is charge of arms licensing how to buy electro-shock weapons the easy way – from the UK.

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