Iran and Iraq caused a sharp global spike in the number of executions carried out in 2013, bucking the global trend towards abolition of the death penalty, Amnesty International found in its annual review of the death penalty worldwide.
Alarming levels of executions in an isolated group of countries in 2013 - mainly the two Middle Eastern states - saw close to 100 more people put to death around the world compared to the previous year, a jump of almost 15 per cent.
“The virtual killing sprees we saw in countries like Iran and Iraq were shameful. But those states who cling to the death penalty are on the wrong side of history and are, in fact, growing more and more isolated,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“Only a small number of countries carried out the vast majority of these senseless state-sponsored killings. They can’t undo the overall progress already made towards abolition.”
The number of executions in Iran (at least 369) and Iraq (169) saw the two countries take second and third place in the death penalty league table, with China topping the list. While the number of executions in China is kept secret, Amnesty International believes thousands are put to death every year.
Saudi Arabia (79) and the USA (39) take fourth and fifth place with Somalia (34) in sixth place.
Excluding China, at least 778 executions were known to have been carried out in 2013, compared to 682 in 2012.
People were executed in a total of 22 countries in 2013, one more than in the year before. Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Viet Nam all resumed use of the death penalty.
Despite the setbacks in 2013, there has been a steady decline in the number of countries using the death penalty over the last 20 years, and there was progress in all regions last year.
Many countries who executed in 2012 did not implement any death sentences last year, including Gambia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, where authorities again suspended the use of the death penalty. Belarus also refrained from executions, meaning Europe and Central Asia was execution-free for the first time since 2009.
Twenty years ago, 37 countries actively implemented the death penalty. This number had fallen to 25 by 2004 and was at 22 last year. Only nine of the world’s countries have executed year on year for the past five years.
“The long-term trend is clear – the death penalty is becoming a thing of the past. We urge all governments who still kill in the name of justice to impose a moratorium on the death penalty immediately, with a view to abolishing it,” said Salil Shetty.
In many executing countries the use of the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy; no information is made public and in some cases the authorities do not even inform family members, lawyers or the public in advance of executions taking place.
Methods of executions in 2013 included beheading, electrocution, firing squad, hanging and lethal injection. Public executions took place in Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
People faced the death penalty for a range of non-lethal crimes including robbery, drug-related and economic offences, as well as acts that should not be crimes at all such as “adultery” or “blasphemy”. Many countries used vaguely worded political “crimes” to put real or perceived dissidents to death.
Iraq saw a stark rise in executions for the third year running. At least 169 people were put to death, an increase of almost one-third on the year before. The vast majority were convicted under vague anti-terrorism laws.
In Iran, there were at least 369 executions officially acknowledged by the authorities in 2013. Credible sources pointed to many hundreds more taking place in secret, bringing the total to more than 700.
Saudi Arabia continued executing at the same high levels as the previous two years (at least 79 in 2013). For the first time in three years, Saudi Arabia executed three juvenile offenders, in breach of international law.
Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia accounted for at least 80 per cent of executions worldwide excluding China.
There were some limited positive developments in the region. No one was executed in the United Arab Emirates for the first time in three years, and executions dropped in Yemen, for the second year running.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, only five countries executed: Botswana, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan together carried out more than 90 per cent of the region’s executions. Reported executions in Somalia jumped from six in 2012 to at least 34 last year.
In Nigeria, four men were hanged in the first executions in seven years. This followed statements from President Goodluck Jonathan which gave a green light to a resumption of executions in the country.
Across the region, several states, including Benin, Ghana and Sierra Leone, took significant steps towards ending the death penalty, either through reviewing constitutions or proposing amendments to penal codes that would abolish capital punishment.
The USA was once again the only country to carry out executions in the Americas, although four fewer people (39) were put to death in 2013 compared with 2012. The state of Texas accounted for 41 per cent of all executions. Meanwhile, Maryland became the 18th US state to abolish the death penalty. Several Greater Caribbean states reported empty death rows for the first time since Amnesty International began keeping records in 1980.
Viet Nam and Indonesia both resumed executions last year. Indonesia used the death penalty for the first time in four years - five men were put to death in 2013, including two executed for drug trafficking.
China continued to execute more people than the rest of the world put together, but with the death penalty treated as a state secret reliable data is impossible to obtain. There were limited signs of progress in the country, with new legal protections introduced in death penalty cases, and the Supreme Court announcing an end to the practice of organ harvesting from executed prisoners.
No executions were reported in Singapore and several death row prisoners had their sentences commuted. The Pacific sub-region continued to be a virtually death penalty free zone, despite threats from Papua New Guinea to resume executions.
For the first time since 2009, Europe and Central Asia was an execution-free zone. The only country still clinging to the death penalty is Belarus, although it did not put anyone to death in 2013.