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Is the UK Government Protecting Companies Accused of Selling Torture Weapons?

Activists weren't given permission to prosecute two international arms companies.
30 July 2014, 9:26am

Stop the Arms Fair Protesters outside the 2013 DSEi arms expo (Photo via)

A month ago, organisers of the Stop the Arms Fair movement were in high spirits. They had recently left the court where, half a year before, they had been on trial for obstructing the police during a protest outside the Defence Security and Equipment international exhibition (DSEi), a giant biennial weapons expo that takes place in east London. Now, however, they were the ones putting people in the dock; after the charges against them were dropped, they launched a case against two arms companies – Tianjin Myway and Magforce International – for allegedly advertising torture weapons at the arms fair.

“The irony is that the same judge who tried to prosecute us five months ago for promoting human rights is now prosecuting those who facilitate the abuse of human rights,” laughed Susannah Mengesha, a member of the activist group, at the time. But her delight didn't last long – a couple of weeks ago the movement were forced to announce that the case was to be discontinued because they didn't have permission to prosecute.

The official statement from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is that: “We pursue investigation, with a view to prosecution, where evidence of serious and deliberate breaches of export controls is identified. These types of case will be investigated and, if appropriate, then referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) who will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution, and whether that prosecution is in the public interest.”

The CPS have said that there was “not enough evidence to prosecute”. Which seems odd, considering both companies were ejected from the event and the Forensic Firearms Consultancy published a report identifying the weapons in question – which included electric batons and leg irons – as Category A goods under The Export Control Order 2008, and therefore illegal to advertise. Since then Magforce has stated that it did not know the products were illegal under UK law. It would appear that – for international arms companies, at least – ignorance is a legitimate defence.

Raj Chada is the lawyer who was representing the Stop the Arms Fair group. He told me: “The CPS maintain that the Director of Public Prosecution’s consent was required before the prosecution was commenced.” Raj wrote to the CPS, HMRC and a number of MPs – including Vince Cable, who's responsible for the government’s arms sales promotion unit (which is, depressingly, a real thing) – requesting permission to prosecute, but never received any acknowledgement of his attempts to contact them.

The senior press officer at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – of which Cable is secretary – stated that this was a matter for HMRC, even when asked to comment on Cable ignoring Chada’s correspondence. Similarly, HMRC was not willing to offer any comment beyond its boilerplate statement, and when pressed to address the ignored emails suggested speaking to the CPS. The CPS, for its part, requested proof of the correspondence, which was provided. It then failed to return any of my emails.

If this all seems totally baffling, that’s because it is; Mengesha said the whole process had been “incredibly confusing”.

One of the weapons on display at the 2013 DSEi arms expo (Photo by Uzi Gold)

Had the case gone ahead it would have been the first of it’s kind – no one has ever privately prosecuted an arms company before. However, it should never really have come to this in the first place; you'd expect the government, not a group of activists, to uphold the law, especially in an area as serious as torture.

Interestingly, the CPS only contacted the group to inform them that they could no longer proceed with the case after the six-month deadline for public prosecutions to be brought in summary cases. Chada described the events as “an unusual set of circumstances, to put it blandly”.

Mengesha was less diplomatic: ”I’m highly suspicious of the fact it took them so long to respond to us," she said. "Had the CPS taken one look at the evidence it would have had enough to act on. The fact it took six months to react is outrageous.” Oli Sprague, programme director for Amnesty International’s work on arms control and policing, was equally unimpressed: “It really beggars belief. We just cannot understand why they don’t want to carry out their own laws," he said. "International law is very clear – it says torture is totally abhorrent and totally illegal, so there are certain categories of weaponry that should be outlawed, no matter what.”

Protesters demonstrating against Vince Cable's involvement in UK arms sales (Photo via)

The fact that the government jointly hosts the DSEi arms fair could go some way to explaining this unwillingness to punish those who allegedly advertise torture weapons there. Sean Douglas, another member of the Stop the Arms Fair group, said: “A lot of embarrassing facts would have come out in the hearing. We had expert evidence about the nature of the weapons and proof that either torture weapons or illegal cluster munitions have been advertised at every DSEi event since 2005. The government has never prosecuted companies for this. It has never even investigated them.”

Caroline Lucas is the UK’s first ever Green Party MP, and in September she raised questions in Parliament about the unlawful promotion of weapons at DSEi. She reiterated Douglas’ statements and said: “Time and again the organisers of DSEi have shown that they cannot guarantee that exhibitors will remain within the law. The government is supposed to regulate this event and yet has demonstrated complacency beyond comprehension. That the case has now been discontinued is deeply worrying.”

Mengesha added: “They have a massive vested interest in this going ahead, and going ahead smoothly. Not only that, many will go and get chairmanship roles at arms companies when they finish their careers in Westminster.” Andrew Smith is the media coordinator for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), an organisation that has catalogued the movement of figures between the government and the arms industry. He said: “The relationship between Westminster and arms companies has been characterised as a revolving door. The level of influence arms companies have over politicians is very concerning.”

Anti-arms trade protesters outside Parliament (Photo via)

Smith also said: “There can be no simple calculation of how much the UK gains from the arms trade because it is largely underwritten by the taxpayer.” But the fact that even The Queen invests in a company that produces uranium for use in depleted-uranium shells gives some indication of the extent of this country’s investment in the weapons industry. Research conducted by CAAT and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute showed that UK arms exports are actually dependent on a taxpayer subsidy of around £700 million per year.

What we also know about government involvement in DSEi – and similar arms fairs – is that, in Smith’s words, “They bring together some of the world’s most oppressive countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. We also know that UK weapons are being used to facilitate oppression in places like Egypt and Gaza.” This, in itself, is a violation of the government’s own rules concerning supplying weapons to countries where they might be used for internal repression and to provoke internal conflict.

“If they prosecuted any company found in violation, that would send a strong message to other companies. Especially companies that are known to peddle weaponry to unstable regimes and countries with terrible human rights records,” said Sprague. He added: “By failing to prosecute these particular companies the UK is sending the message that arms traders of every sort are welcome here.”

Some of the weaponry on sale at the 2013 DSEi arms expo (Photo by Uzi Gold)

Perhaps the worst part of this whole debacle is that even if the prosecution had succeeded, the two companies would have only received fines of a few thousand pounds each, on top of paying for legal fees. Mengesha said: “That’s less than a slap on the wrist for them and deeply offensive to us.”

It is for this reason that Amnesty International is pushing for better regulations and greater sanctions. Sprague said: “Firstly, the laws need tightening, because if they were adequate now it would be easier to secure prosecutions. Secondly, £5,000 for promoting torture equipment seems like a pretty tokenistic fine, and certainly not enough of a deterrent.” Mengesha took it further than this, stating: “We don’t want a better, more regulated arms fair; we want to shut this fucker down.”

Smith and CAAT have broader, more long-term aims: “We need to change the government mind-set from militarism to more progressive demilitarisation. We also need to think about security in much wider terms, rather than obsessing over usually fictitious military threats.”

No one would expect the government’s involvement in the arms trade to be a simple affair. But the closer you scrutinise it, the more convoluted and hypocritical it becomes. The real reasons for the collapse of the case against Tianjin Myway and Magforce International may never become clear. What is clear is that, when it comes to the weapons industry, morality and the rule of law are low on the government’s list of priorities. As Lucas accurately put it: “Proper accountability is a must – anything else is legitimisation."

Tianjin Myway could not be reached for comment.

@allhorne

More stuff about this kind of stuff:

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