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With Olympics Approaching US Reconsiders Sonic Blasters for China

June 8, 2008

By Daniel Pepper
Spiegel (Germany)
June 6, 2008

With the Olympics fast approaching, the US is suddenly concerned
about American-made products being used against human rights
demonstrators. Of particular concern is a sonic blaster that so far
has not been considered a weapon.

A nightmare scenario for the US that could play out on the streets of
Beijing during the Olympic Games this August looks something like
this: Masses of pro-democracy protesters gather to demonstrate
against Beijing's disregard for human rights in Tibet. To break up
the crowd, the Chinese, for once, do not charge in with rolling tanks
or swinging bayonets. Instead, they turn on their Long Range Acoustic
Devices and blast the crowds with ear-splitting noise, sending the
crowd into a panic. A tag on the side of the devices reads: "Made in USA."

That fear may now be leading to action. According to a group which
monitors the global arms trade, the US Commerce Department's Bureau
of Industry and Security is currently undertaking a review of
security devices that American companies are allowed to export to
China. The list of restricted devices, known as the Commerce Control
List, may be expanded, and extreme noisemaking devices such as the
LRAD could very well be added.

The Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), manufactured by American
Technology Corp., is a vehicle-mounted, circular dish that sends out
concentrated, 150 decibel [dB] high-energy acoustic waves that are
painfully loud -- louder than the loudest rock concerts, louder still
than a jet engine or a gun blast. The wave is focused within a 15 to
30 degree spread, allowing the LRAD to be aimed at a specific target,
like a marauding gang of looters -- or a crowd of peaceful protestors.

"The characterization as a 'warning device' is right most of the
time. However, when it is being used to drive people back by acoustic
pain then one should call it a weapon. It's a gray area," Dr. Jürgen
Altmann, a physicist at Technische Universität in Dortmund, Germany,
told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Altmann has been studying acoustic weapons
systems for over 10 years.

NO WEAPONS FOR CHINA

The distinction between warning and weapon matters. Ever since the
1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing's Tiananmen
Square, the US has banned American manufacturers from exporting
certain military, crime control or detection equipment to China. The
European Union has similar restrictions.

But the American Technology Corp. (ATC) says the device is designed
to "influence behavior and determine intent." Robert Putnam, in
charge of media and investor relations with the San Diego,
California-based company, says it is "a directed sounds
communications system, not a weapon." He says the LRAD was developed
after the October, 2000 attack on the USS Cole during a refuelling
stop in Yemen.

The LRAD was on display last month at the Asia Pacific China Police
Expo 2008 in Beijing. ATC was there with their Asian distributors,
the Asia-Pacific Xuanxhao Group. Neither would comment on how many
LRADs, if any, have been sold or distributed across China, but ATC's
most recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission
claims: "During fiscal 2007, we expanded our international marketing
activities and shipped LRAD orders to Australia, Singapore, Korea and China."

Currently the LRAD is deployed around the world, from military
vehicles in Iraq (used by the Marines in Fallujah), to a number of
police departments in the US. It was used to ward off pirates in 2005
by a cruise ship sailing near the coast of Somalia. And was used to
disperse pro-democracy demonstrators in Tbilisi last November, where
Human Rights Watch said it precipitated panic among the crowd.

ATC's Robert Putnam argues that, "since LRAD is a communications
system, we are not subject to export control lists." But the Commerce
Department may soon decide to see things differently.

ETHICAL DILEMMAS

The Commerce Department review is motivated, in part, by concerns
that US-manufactured security equipment -- from closed-circuit
television to vehicles -- will be abused by the Chinese police and
security forces in repressing internal dissent and peaceful protests,
particularly during the Olympic Games.

"It's a test of the workings of US arms control regulations in terms
of second generation arms technology control," says a European
non-lethal arms control expert who works in China, and did not want
to be identified for fear of reprisals by the Chinese authorities.

New technologies such as the LRAD pose difficult ethical dilemmas. A
non-lethal technology may be preferable to police violence, but given
the fact that LRAD devices can cause permanent hearing damage and
extreme pain, many think they should be classified as weapons.
Whether the regulations are tightened or not, the current review will
likely set a precedent for future technologies that have both police
and military purposes, ranging from futuristic immobilizing sticky
foam and energy rays and malodourants. More prosaic technologies
include sophisticated surveillance cameras and biometric sensors that
could be used in state repression.

Even if the LRAD makes it past the review, the device could face
trouble from groups such as the World Organization for Human Rights
USA, a Washington-based advocacy group. Theresa Harris, the
organization's executive director, says their organization has
already weighed in and requested the commerce department to implement
broad changes.

"We believe that the Commerce Department is failing to prevent grave
human rights abuses," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The US Government is
obligated under international law and federal statutes to prevent US
companies from exporting the tools of torture to police and security
agencies that have a documented record of human rights violations."

Whether the LRAD or any other high-tech devices are added to the list
of items prohibited from being sold to China will not make the most
crucial difference, says Harris. The important thing is getting
enforcement mechanisms in place. To that end, there are a number of
laws that foreigners can use to prosecute American companies in US
courts, if a US product is instrumental in perpetuating violations of
human rights abroad.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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