For sale: tools of torture

Observations on stun guns

Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre is hosting Britain's biggest security exhibition, IFSEC. Mobile CCTV vans and vast multiscreens, broadcasting footage of every square inch of the place, line the avenues of industrial carpet. The place is crammed with plain clothes cops and local council officials cooing over the latest cameras which will soon spy over their shopping centres. It is Thursday 24 May and amid the short haircuts, bad suits and name tags is a Chinese man called Sam Shar, an exhibitor at the fair. Sam is oblivious to the police presence as he shows me the electroshock torture equipment he is selling, nonchalantly demonstrating 250,000 volts of stun gun.

Amnesty International describes electroshock weapons as the "torturer's high-technology tool of choice", and its yearly human-rights audit documents the various countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where the use of these weapons in torture is routine. At one time it was fairly commonplace to find pasty-faced British businessmen knocking out stun guns to every Tom, Dick and Ahmed at security and arms fairs. But one of the very few positive things new Labour has done on the control of arms is to outlaw the sale of electroshock weapons. These are now defined as prohibited weapons and "restricted goods". Since 1997, any action which assists the sale or movement of electroshock equipment is illegal. The mere presence of a brochure advertising them will get companies thrown out of arms fairs.

So why does Sam Shar, of Echo Industrial Co Ltd, China, have these weapons on display in the middle of a security fair? The guns Shar shows me provide a shock of between 250,000 and 350,000 volts. They come with a year's warranty and cost a sickening $6.50 each. That's about £3.25. "How long will it take to make an order?" I ask. Shar punches up the number 10,000 on his calculator. "For this many, one month."

So in the middle of a security fair, with people such as Tarique Ghaffur, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, delivering seminars, Shar can discharge an illegal weapon with impunity? He presses the button and a blue flash jumps across the metal points. The air fills with a distinctive electrical crackle. No one appears to notice.

According to Amnesty International: "Dealing in electroshock weapons has been illegal since 1997. It's staggering that ten years on these products are openly on display at a UK security fair."

Roger Berry, MP and chairman of the Quadripartite Committee on Strategic Export Controls (which scrutinises UK arms control) says: "This is outrageous. My committee identified this particular area of concern in our last report, recommending that Customs take the lead in policing arms fairs to ensure all companies were in compliance with UK regulations. This obviously has not happened."

The Association of Chief Police Officers has a stall around the corner from Shar. Who better to tell, I reason, than the police. But when I get to the Acpo stall it is empty and lifeless. However, a few stalls along are two life-size cut-out police officers in luminous jackets.

"Do you actually sell these?" I ask. "Oh yes," says a rather indignant gentleman on the stand. "You remember the cut-out police cars, put out on the roads? They got drivers to reduce their speed."

"And this is the same principle?" I ask.

"Yes, we sell them to garages where they get a lot of people driving off without paying for petrol. Stick a couple of these in the garage window," he says, patting his cardboard protectors, "and when people see them they just drive on and don't bother trying to steal the petrol."

It is the nearest thing to active policing I have seen at the fair.

Standing in the temporary offices of CMP Information Ltd, the security fair organisers, I ask to speak to the duty Customs officer. "The nearest Customs officer is at the airport." Customs, it seems, didn't regard checking for torture equipment as a priority, despite being recommended to do so by, er, parliament.

"OK, can I speak to the senior police officer on duty?"

"There are no police, as the event is covered by private security." "Well, there is a man discharging electroshock weapons . . ."

Security then found a police officer and a short while later Shar was arrested. Giving his name as Jinguo Xia, Shar later pleaded guilty to the sale of prohibited articles at Solihull Magistrates Court and will appear before Warwick Crown Court on 22 June for sentencing.

CMP said it has "very clear guidelines about what goods are not permitted" in its trade fairs. "Any infringement is immediately reported to the police and HM Customs. In this case we closed down the offending exhibitor within 30 minutes and he was detained by West Midlands Police. We have requested additional [police] presence at next year's event. IFSEC is an internationally respected event and goods of this nature have no place in it."

Mark Thomas performs "As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela", his show on the arms trade, at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (020 7328 1000) until 16 June; http://www.tricycle.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent