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Torture Is Accelerating Globally, Report Says

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Propelled by the growing availability of electroshock devices, the practice of torture has risen dramatically worldwide, with incidents reported in more than 150 countries this year, according to an Amnesty International report to be released today. Criminals and criminal suspects are most frequently the victims of torture, although political prisoners, dissidents and those targeted for religious or other beliefs are also victimized, according to the study, the result of three years of research.

The increasing sophistication of instruments of torture is a major factor in the rise, said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty’s U.S. branch. Many electroshock devices, for instance, inflict great pain but leave little, if any, physical evidence.

Amnesty International last examined the problem on a global basis 16 years ago, when it reported the use of torture in 98 countries. In 1984, electroshock equipment such as stun belts and batons designed and marketed specifically for use on humans “didn’t even exist in any significant form,” Schulz said. “Now there are over 50 companies in the U.S. alone that manufacture it.”

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The study also found:

* Incidents of death by torture in more than 80 countries.

* Torture through rape and other sexual abuse in more than 50 countries.

* Use of torture against political prisoners in more than 70 countries.

* Use of electroshock equipment and ill treatment of prisoners in at least 58 countries.

Last year, U.S. authorities in about 130 federal, state and local jurisdictions used stun belts, the watchdog group reported, and many police departments in the United States used forms of electroshock equipment. Amnesty also reported that at least 18 counties in California force some disruptive prisoners to wear stun belts while they are being transported or when they appear in court.

While the use of electroshock technology is increasing, beating remains the most common method of torture, according to the report.

In the United States, the growing number of imprisoned women has also led to an increase in the number of reported incidents of sexual assault in prisons, the study found. The U.N. Convention Against Torture defines such sexual abuse as torture.

Tracy Neal, 32, is one such victim. In 1991, Neal was convicted of second-degree murder and imprisoned in Plymouth, Mich. For years, Neal said in an interview, she was harassed and threatened by prison guards and witnessed similar abuse of other female prisoners. In 1994, she was raped by a guard.

“A woman in prison is an ideal victim because she can’t do anything to defend herself,” Neal said. “I never knew if I was going to be raped again.”

Neal reported the rape and filed a lawsuit against the guard, said her attorney, Molly Reno. Still, the harassment continued.

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“To retaliate against me for my lawsuit, they searched my property all the time [and] made me go through extra ‘shakedowns,’ where the officers search you and caress you at the same time,” she said.

In March, Neal received a settlement as part of a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of 30 female inmates from Michigan prisons who alleged sexual abuse.

Mobilizing the public to oppose the torture of criminals is difficult, the report says. Moreover, the beating of criminal suspects may be so routine in some countries that it isn’t recognized as torture, even by the victims themselves. Often, beatings and other physical and psychological abuse are standard practice for arrested suspects, used to obtain a confession or punish and humiliate the suspect, the report says.

“There is a mentality in the world that someone who has been convicted of a crime deserves whatever he gets,” Schulz said. “No one should be tortured, no matter what they have done.”

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