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U.K. embarrassed by student 'arms dealers'

By HANNAH K. STRANGE, UPI Correspondent

LONDON, March 30 (UPI) -- The British government has been embarrassed by a group of high school students who managed to exploit loopholes in Britain's arms controls to import torture equipment and arrange a series of arms deals with countries under embargo.

The teenagers, from Lord William's School in Oxfordshire, imported equipment including thumb cuffs from Taiwan, wall restraints from Poland and a Chinese "sting stick" -- a metal bar covered with spikes - using nothing more than a letterhead, an email address, a cell phone and a small amount of money. They also managed to arrange deals to export arms to countries covered by British or other national arms embargos, including the sale of Pakistani grenade launchers to Syria, Turkish guns to Mali, and South African rifles to Israel.

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The ease with which the students managed to evade Britain's restrictions on small arms and torture equipment is exposed in a Channel Four documentary entitled After School Arms Club, to be broadcast Monday. Malcolm Wicks, the government minister responsible for export controls, has asked the group for a report on how they were able to import the torture equipment, after they presented him with the Chinese sting stick outside the Houses of Parliament.

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The students set up two front companies, Williams Defense and Williams Defense Eire, the latter based in Ireland to avoid British controls. They arranged the international arms deals through the Irish company, getting quotes but never going ahead.

Children from a second school near Dublin in the Republic of Ireland also succeeded in importing a range of torture equipment, including leg irons from South Africa and electric shock batons from Korea.

After being approached by the human rights group Action from Ireland and asked if they would like to take part in the documentary, seven students from Scoil Chriost Rí set up a company called Seachtar, the Irish word for seven.

With the help of their teacher Sister Barbara Raftery, the girls contacted an Israeli arms dealer that was advertising stone-throwing machines. The company agreed to export the machines to Ireland under an "agriculture" classification, in contravention of Israeli law which classes such machines as small arms. Ireland has no such classification, meaning it was legal to import the machine.

Through Williams Defense Eire, the documentary team then paid the Israeli company $7,500 for the machine, which can fire up to 600 stones per minute. The dealer offered to bring the equipment to Ireland and demonstrate it; after doing so, in a field just minutes from the unpatrolled border with the British territory of Northern Ireland, he was confronted by the students and the documentary team.

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The documentary aims to expose the ease with which arms dealers can evade British restrictions on the trade of small arms and torture equipment, either by using front companies in Ireland, where regulations are far less stringent, or by trading items which, while dangerous, do not fall within the narrow classifications of banned articles.

The British government maintains it is opposed to any trade in torture equipment, yet only prohibits the purchase and sale of items on a published list - which does not include the wall cuffs, thumb cuffs or Chinese sting stick.

The students and teachers who participated in the project said they were shocked by their findings.

"It should not be legal, and yet we've proved that children, who by law are not allowed to drink alcohol, can broker arms from countries along a trade route from Poland to China, Israel to South Africa. And many of these arms are used against -- or tragically even by -- children," said Maddy Fry, 16, a pupil at Lord Williams's school, according to the Guardian newspaper.

George Lear, head of citizenship at the school, said: "We were stunned by what we could achieve. Nobody questioned us at any stage."

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Labor parliamentarian Roger Berry, chairman of the parliamentary committee which monitors export controls, said Wednesday that it was absurd that while anyone in Britain could be arrested for carrying "offensive weapons" -- which includes any bladed or sharply pointed instrument, such as a kitchen knife -- children could freely import equipment that could be used in torture.

Eulette Ewart, a spokesperson for Amnesty International, which collaborated on the project, said the British government must now put in place "tough rules" to prevent people profiting from trading in weapons used to terrorize and torture.

The British list of prohibited torture equipment needed to be tightened up, she told United Press International; items such as the Chinese "stinging stick" imported by the students were "clearly" used for that purpose yet for some reason were not included.

She acknowledged that the British government could do little when it came to Irish regulations, but called for the European Union to apply pressure on Dublin.

It was "shameful" that Ireland was the only EU country not to have signed up to controls on arms brokering, she said.

A spokesperson for Britain's Department for Trade and Industry said they would look at the program and the report requested by Wicks, and investigate if necessary. However the department could not comment further at this stage, she told United Press International.

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