The Guardian - Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Ed Pilkington in New York - Arab uprisings lead to rise in capital punishment in Middle East but Amnesty finds some comfort in world figures – even in China
Middle Eastern countries have stepped up their use of capital punishment, executing hundreds of people as rulers across the region seek to deter the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab countries.
Despite a significant reduction in the number of countries that used the death penalty worldwide last year, there was a sharp rise in executions in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen, according to Amnesty International's annual capital punishment survey, released on Tuesday.
China remained at the top of the list of the countries with the worst record of executions last year. Authorities in China maintained their policy of refusing to release precise figures on the death penalty in the country, which they consider a state secret.
Amnesty said it had stopped publishing figures on China, available from public sources, because they were likely to "grossly underestimate" the true number, but reported that the country had executed thousands of people, more than the rest of the world put together. According to Amnesty, at least 676 judicial executions are known to have been carried out in 2011 globally, excluding China, up from 527 in 2010. More than half took place in Iran, which executed at least 360 people. But reports about the regime's campaign of secret and mass hangings of prisoners have made it impossible for Amnesty to publish the true figures there too.
"Amnesty has also received credible reports that a large number of unacknowledged executions took place in Iran, executions that would almost double the number of 'official' ones there," it said. In December, Amnesty warned of a "new wave of drug offence executions" in Iran, which it described as a "killing spree of staggering proportions" in an effort to contain drug-related crimes.
Saudi Arabia executed at least 82 people, which was 55 more than the minimum known figure for the previous year. Iraq, which had acknowledged only one execution in 2010, used the death penalty at least 68 times in 2011. Yemen executed at least 41, North Korea 30, Somalia 10, Sudan seven and Bangladesh five. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are known to have executed at least one person, but exact numbers were unknown for Malaysia and especially for Syria, which has been rocked by violence in the past year.
The escalating use of the death penalty in the Middle East is seen as a tactic by the authorities to spread fear among dissidents in order to prevent them from participating in pro-democracy movements. On a more positive note, fewer countries are resorting to the death penalty – 20 in 2011, down from 31 a decade ago, Amnesty said. The United States has significantly reduced execution numbers, but still put 43 people to death last year.
Amnesty's US director, Suzanne Nossel, said that significant progress has been made in the number of executions in America as well as the number of new death sentences handed out – 78 in 2011 down from an average of 280 a year in the 1980s. The popularity of the death penalty in the US had also declined to record lows, she said.
But Nossel said the company that the US was keeping – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and a handful of other states practising executions – was increasingly glaring. "We've reached a tipping point globally where the vast majority of countries that are regarded as standard bearers of human rights have rejected the death penalty, and that makes it much harder for the US to explain why it is sticking to the practice."
Methods of execution across the world included hanging, as in Iran; lethal injections, in China, Taiwan and the US; and beheading, in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty warned that Iran has used the death penalty at least three times on minors, in violation of international laws. Saudi Arabia is also believed to have carried out at least one juvenile execution. Those put to death globally were convicted of various charges ranging from murder to adultery and sodomy (in Iran), sorcery (in Saudi Arabia) and drug offences.
Despite the executions, Amnesty said progress had been made even in countries that still carry out executions. In the US, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty. In China, the authorities dropped the death sentence for 13 crimes, and in Iran the government made amendments to the country's penal code, although they did little to improve the situation there. In 2011, at least 1,923 people were given death sentences, taking the overall number of those on death row to 18,750.
"The vast majority of countries have moved away from using the death penalty," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general. "Our message to the leaders of the isolated minority of countries that continue to execute is clear: you are out of step with the rest of the world on this issue and it is time you took steps to end this most cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment."He added: "Even among the small group of countries that executed in 2011, we can see gradual progress. These are small steps but such incremental measures have been shown ultimately to lead to the end of the death penalty. It is not going to happen overnight but we are determined that we will see the day when the death penalty is consigned to history."