A Casper maker of tear gas grenades and other so-called nonlethal weapons is taking heat from a human rights group over the use of its weapons by police against protesters in Istanbul, Turkey.
Online photos from protesters in recent weeks show remains of Defense Technology-made tear gas grenades fired in the protest-filled streets of Istanbul. The New York-based War Resisters League launched its Facing Tear Gas campaign Tuesday, roughly two weeks later.
Photos from Turkey show closeups of apparently detonated rubber ball grenades — canisters packed with flash powder, chemical irritants and pea-sized rubber pellets programmed to explode and injure but not fatally wound a crowd. The words “Casper, Wyoming,” and the logo of the local manufacturer appear repeatedly on the labels pictured.
Defense Technology is one of a few companies chided in the campaign for putting the weapons into the hands of police in Turkey, where protests that started last month over the government’s redevelopment of a historic public square have shifted into an expression of greater unrest over what many Turks say is the moderate Islamic ruling party’s increasingly autocratic style of governing.
Representatives of Safariland Group, Defense Technology’s parent company, would not confirm whether any recent sales or shipments of tear gas or other nonlethal weapons had been made to law enforcement in Turkey, citing confidential information. However, a site manager at the north-side Casper manufacturing plant confirmed the weapons and labeling depicted in the widely reported photos were consistent with labels on weapons that leave the Casper facility.
Among Defense Technology’s products are tear gas and pepper spray canisters, foam-tipped bullets, riot batons and distraction grenades that, once detonated, can emit smoke in any of five colors, according to documents on the company’s website.
The company sells its products to distributors, who in turn sell the products to a police or law enforcement agency, said Hope Bianchi Sjursen, Safariland’s director of marketing.
In its online campaign, the War Resisters League pushes for basic language in international law to regulate the use of nonlethal chemical weapons. Tear gas sales and shipment records, they say, should be open to the public.
“The campaign is about people’s right to assemble and their right to speak freely ... and call for the world they want to live in,” War Resisters League organizing coordinator Kimber Heinz said. “And now there’s chemicals that can actually be used to prevent that.”
Heinz isn’t just concerned with the use of nonlethal weapons. She’s concerned with police forces that misuse them to break up peaceful protests and the companies that profit off the enterprise.
Pushing for transparency in tear gas sales and shipment records, she said, is a concrete way for the League to signal support for democratic movements.
“To require [public records] would be a great first step for some kind of accountability for what these companies are supporting, which is a regime attack on popular democratic uprising,” Heinz said.
On the ground
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Reports from Turkey detail a police force quick to resort to force in battling what organizers say have been largely peaceful protests.
Andrew Gardner lives and works in an Istanbul office a stone’s throw from the city’s Taksim Square, where protesters first gathered in late May. He is a researcher studying Turkey for Amnesty International.
“The vast, overwhelming majority of protests have been peaceful,” Gardner said from Istanbul Thursday during a Skype interview with the Star-Tribune. “And what’s remarkable is whether there’s violence, or whether there’s people chanting slogans and singing ... the police methods seem to be exactly the same.”
Tear gas and water cannons are the weapons of choice for Turkish police, Gardner said. While those things are intended for policing violent crowds, he said, in Turkey they’ve been used almost exclusively on peaceful demonstrators.
Gardner said he has seen tear gas used on people running away from police, in confined spaces and in places where medical help is being given. Police have fired tear gas guns directly at individuals, he said.
“It’s got to a state where the use of tear gas had been routine and widespread, and systematically violating rights,” Gardner said.
Repeated calls to the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., for comment went unanswered.
Tear gas-exporting countries have human rights obligations, Gardner said. But whether companies can reasonably be expected to calculate any human right — whether to free speech or peaceful protest — into their bottom line is another story.
“Companies, they’re not training themselves to think about morality or human rights or what’s best for people,” Heinz, the War Resisters League campaign organizer, said. “They are trying to make money off of this.”
And the same investors whose dollars support the nonlethal weapons manufacturing industry — touted as an alternative to lethal force — have stock in other, lethal weapons industries, Heinz said.
“They’re at the same trade shows. They’re the same people, oftentimes,” Heinz said. “Exactly the kind of weapons they’re trying to avoid [by] manufacturing their less-lethal products.”
It’s unclear whether an end to tear gas exports would make the world a safer place. Would police reach first for guns and bombs if tear gas and water cannons weren’t around? Gardner said in Turkey, an already democratic country, such a violent response would be unlikely.
Defense Technology does not typically monitor its products after a sale, said Bianchi Sjursen of Safariland.
“We sell our products to our customers, and our customers then resell them,” she said. “We manufacture these things as safe as we can.”
Reach county reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.