Civilising the torture and execution trade


Earlier this month, the European Parliament and Council  finally agreed to outlaw the export,

brokering and promotion of torture and execution equipment from Europe.   Such equipment

includes  guillotines,  hanging  ropes,  lethal  injection  drugs,  multi-barbed  steel  ‘sting  sticks’, 

electroshock  batons  and  tools  familiar  to  torturers  of  old:  leg  irons  and  wall  cuffs  to  hang 

prisoners   from   walls   and   ceilings,   thumbscrews,   neck   chains   and   other   medieval  



How Britain made torture and death its business


Up until now, progress towards this ban has been glacial. The story of Britain’s involvement

goes back to 1983 when a memo from the Sensitive Services Committee was nicked from an

office wall of the UK’s Crown Agents.  The author of the memo gave a list of sensitive goods

including  leg  irons  and hanging  ropes,  but  was  less  concerned  about  Britain trading  in 

reprehensible items than avoiding what was termed ministerial embarrassment. The Minister

of Trade at the time, Norman Tebbitt, caused a furore when he said:  “If this country did not

export them someone else would.”   The revelations prompted two Daily Mirror reporters to

see what they could buy from Hiatts and Co in Birmingham; they were offered leg irons and

gang chains. Hiatts had been one of the original suppliers of such equipment to the slave

trade and made most British police handcuffs. Other anomalies emerged when a subsidiary

of  the  construction  company  Laing  (slogan:  we  build  for  people)  was  found  to  be  building 

gallows  for  Abu  Dhabi.  The  Minister  of  State  at  that  time,  David  Mellor  responded:  “The

manufacture of execution equipment in the UK is legal and not subject to any form of control.”


The torture trail


Looking back, it seems astonishing that the European Union has taken until the 21st century

to ban equipment most people associate with the barbaric practices of medieval times, which

most of us now only come into contact with in museums. And yet Amnesty International’s files

are replete with people who have been on the receiving end of such barbaric instruments and

practices for decades. There are teams of medical practitioners worldwide who attempt to

heal and rehabilitate victims of torture; NGOs like Huridocs (that document such violations);

Reprieve (which seeks justice for victims of human rights violations); and those that

track  the  armourers  of  the  torturers,  such  as  the  Omega  Research  Foundation.   


Read the rest of Steve Wright’s Statewatch analysis