Alibaba.com: Supermarket for Torture Devices? 

Alibaba may be Wall Street’s wunderkind, but for dictators searching for thumb cuffs and shock devices, it's a great place to shop.

It’s yet another booming market that China dominates: electric shock shields, spiked batons, electric shock stun batons, thumb cuffs, neck restraints and the like.

In China, 130 companies manufacture or export such tools of torture, according to a recent report by Amnesty International and Omega Research Foundation.

Their clients: African dictators and abusive anti-riot police forces eager to squash dissent.

Where do you go to find some of these devices?

GlobalPost has discovered that Alibaba.com— Wall Street’s latest darling, whose parent company Alibaba smashed records this month with its $25 billion initial public stock offering — is a good place to start.

There, sellers openly advertise some of the “inherently abusive” implements named by Amnesty — devices that pose a substantial risk of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Many of these rubber-spiked batons, electric shock stun shields, thumb cuffs, and at least one product claiming to be an electric shock baton have recently been advertised on Alibaba.com, sold in bulk orders typically in the hundreds. The primary markets listed on the traders’ websites include Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.

Amnesty International alleges that China’s export controls for law enforcement equipment are “weak, lack transparency and do not appear to assess the human rights record of the recipient country.” Chinese exporters’ gear has been used to smash riots in Uganda and suppress dissent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the 2011 election, the report alleges. Chinese-made electric shock stun batons — a common torture tool for clubbing and electrocuting victims — appear to be carried by police in Ghana, Senegal, Egypt and Madagascar, where respect for human rights is minimal, Amnesty contends.

“We strongly support the position taken by the European Union and reinforced by a unanimously adopted UN resolution on torture, that equipment that is intrinsically cruel, inhumane and degrading should be prohibited,” said Patrick Wilcken, the lead author of the Amnesty report.

“So in our view these products should not be advertised for sale by Alibaba, and Alibaba should have systems in place to bar the advertising of all law enforcement equipment which has no practical use other than for torture and ill-treatment,” he said.

Indeed, Alibaba’s guidelines ban “arms, ammunitions, military ordnance, weapons,” explosive devices, and any “related parts or accessories.”

"Alibaba.com is an open, user-generated-content platform which strongly supports and abides by all international laws and rules related to non-proliferation,” Katharine Cralle, an associate partner at the London-based public relations firm Brunswick Group, which represents the company, wrote in a statement. “Alibaba.com has robust product listing policies in place and will cooperate with law enforcement authorities worldwide to remove problematic product listings promptly upon receipt of notice."

Wilcken added that Alibaba appears to have brought down the number of dangerous tools for sale recently. Still, quite a few remain:

Electric shock stun shields

This device is an “inherently abusive stun weapon” that delivers a painful shock to protesters and should be banned, according to Amnesty. A recent search of Alibaba.com returned the following choices:

A few product descriptions contend that the electrical discharge is within safe limits, although Amnesty says any electric stun shield should be banned because the shock pain is so intense, even if it does not incapacitate its victims. Moreover, officers would be unlikely to know if a victim suffers from a medical condition that could result in grave injury. The use of force can also be arbitrary and contrary to international standards, the group says.

Thumb cuffs

Amnesty condemns thumb cuffs because they “lend themselves to use in ‘stress positions’ that can easily result in injuries, and may amount to torture or other ill-treatment,” says the report.

Many thumb cuffs manufactured in China are serrated on the inner edges, puncturing the skin if applied too tightly. None of the thumb cuffs for sale on Alibaba.com appear to have sharpened inner edges, but Amnesty still believes that does not stop them from being inherently harmful.

“As they have no legitimate use for law enforcement that could not be fulfilled by ordinary handcuffs, when used correctly, Amnesty International and Omega consider thumb cuffs as inherently abusive,” the report said.

Electric shock stun baton

Electric shock stun batons are widely manufactured and used in China, according to Amnesty International. While the manufacturers of these devices claim they are non-lethal, Amnesty calls them “inherently abusive” because of the ease of shocking sensitive parts of the body. They also don’t leave the same physical traces of beatings, covering up evidence of torture.

A seller claims that a “Hot Selling Electric Shock Baton” is manufactured and sold with a minimum of 100 orders per month by a Chinese company that calls itself an “anti-riot helmet manufacturer.”

As of Friday Oct. 3, this product appears to have been taken down, one day after GlobalPost inquired with the company press office about the listing. The seller, meanwhile, didn’t respond to a question on the power or specifications of its claimed electrical shock. Several other products listed on Alibaba.com as “electrical shock batons” appear to actually be glowing sticks for nighttime traffic direction. It’s not clear why they are mislabeled.

Rubber-spiked batons

Several Chinese manufacturers sell batons with rubber spikes on their ends. While these batons do not feature the far more egregious metal spikes, Wilcken of Amnesty says that even hardened, rubber-spiked batons are inappropriate for law enforcement because they have no tactical justification, risking undue injury such as breaking the skin.

As for their metal cousins, China is the only country known to manufacture police sticks either covered in metal spikes, or made of plastic and covered with spikes on their head. The US government embargoes metal-spiked batons, labeling them “specially designed implements of torture.”

Weighted leg cuffs

The Amnesty report has this to say: “Despite the concerns of the [United Nations] Special Rapporteur on torture, the Chinese authorities have not sought to restrict or ban the use of weighted leg cuffs and Chinese companies have continued to advertise for sale types of leg cuffs weighing up to 8 kg.”

“Amnesty International and Omega call for a ban on the use of leg restraints purposefully designed to cause discomfort, including weighted leg cuffs,” it adds.

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