Ethical trade: Best of British leg irons on sale in America

Manacles, cuffs and chains from Birmingham firm that flourished during slavery are still in American shops
Click to follow
The Independent Online
AT RAY'S Sport Shop in New Jersey, half a dozen customers were stocking up on law enforcement and hunting equipment last Thursday.

The staff were helpful, friendly and open. They could supply a variety of Hiatt goods, all recent stock, they said. The Independent bought a pair of leg irons with "Made in England" on the cuff and with Hiatts' address in Birmingham on the box.

Two years ago the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, announced a ban on such devices. The goods required export licences before Labour came to power and the rules on their sale and manufacture have not changed.

Thirty miles west of Manhattan, past a polluted wasteland of twisted metal, Ray's sits among the strip malls on Highway 22, between a Nissan dealership and a Blockbuster video store. In a glass case beneath a gallery of stuffed wild turkeys, are displayed rows of handcuffs, leg-irons and belly- chains with "Big Brutus" handcuffs for thicker wrists.

If there were any quality problems, the Ray's staff said, the cuffs were covered by a warranty from Hiatt and Co in the UK.

Leg-irons and gang-chains are legal in the United States, used in some prisons. In 1995 Patrick Foster, a British businessman imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for drinking, told a newspaper he was held in Hiatt leg irons. He saw one man taken away in them to be beheaded, and another hung upside down by them while he was beaten on the feet.

Hiatt is a British company set up in 1780, when it provided leg- irons, gang-chains and "nigger collars" to the slave trade, says an official history. In 1986 it formed a distribution partnership in the US with a businessman, Chuck Thompson, forming a new and separate firm, Hiatt Thompson.

Hiatt Thompson's website boasts that the firm has been "Simply the Best Since 1780" and bears a company history written by a former director of Hiatt and Co, Terry Fellows. It also uses the logo of the UK company on advertisements for leg irons.

Geoffrey Cross, the chairman of Hiatt and Co, denied his firm exported leg irons or components for them, but said it did make extra-large handcuffs which were exported with a licence. Hiatt Thompson's only link with Hiatt and Co was as a purchaser of its equipment, he said.

Hiatt and Co received no payment for the use of its name and logo in advertising of products such as leg irons by Hiatt Thompson. "The company in the US is a customer of ours for handcuffs," he added. "We have agreed with them that they can use our name in marketing handcuffs."

Chuck Thompson said his firm bought handcuffs including the "Big Brutus" - which has the same dimensions as a leg-cuff - from Hiatt and Company. But it made all its leg cuffs and gang chains in a 10,000sq-ft plant in Bedford Park, Illinois. He said the leg-irons The Independent bought "must have been old stock from the early 1980s".

The US needed such equipment because its criminals were harder to restrain, he added. "These guys are big animals. They do more kicking now because they watch all this Bruce Lee fist fighting."

The revelation that British leg-irons are still on sale abroad will provoke protests from all sides in the House of Commons. Labour backbenchers will join Liberal Democrat and Conservative party spokesmen in questioning ministers.

David Chidgey, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on trade and industry, plans to question Mr Cook this week about moves to ban torture equipment, as will Ann Clwyd, chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group. Mr Chidgey, the MP for Eastleigh, said it was clear a "cart and horses" could be driven through the rules. "I am challenging Mr Cook to stop being complacent and to start acting to make sure the legislation he promised is actually put in place," he said.

Ms Clwyd said she believed the Foreign Secretary was sincere in his desire to close the loopholes. "It's clear his intention is to do something about this and if people are breaking the spirit of the Government's declaration then clearly these matters must be put straight and the loopholes stopped," she said. "I will bring this evidence to his attention."

Additional Reporting: Robin Ballintyne

Comments