Despite some disappointing setbacks, the global trend towards ending the death penalty continued last year, says Amnesty International as it released new global figures on executions and death sentences.
The figures - contained in a 60-page report Death Sentences and Executions in 2012 - show that there were at least 682 confirmed executions around the world last year, two more than in 2011. Meanwhile, there were at least 1,722 newly-imposed death sentences in 58 countries, compared to 1,923 in 63 countries in 2011. This meant that at least 23,386 people were under sentence of death worldwide at the end of 2012.
Twenty-one countries are confirmed as having carried out executions in 2012 - the same number as in 2011 - but Amnesty pointed out that this is significantly down from levels a decade ago (28 countries carried out executions in 2003).
Last year Latvia became the 97th country in the world to remove the death penalty for all crimes, and Amnesty’s figures show that more than two-thirds of the world’s countries (140) are now “abolitionist in law or practice”. Last year also saw a major academic study in the USA which rejected arguments that the death penalty is a deterrent against crime, a finding that Amnesty welcomed as it called on the one in ten countries still conducting executions to abandon the practice.
However, there were reverses in 2012 and Amnesty expressed strong concern at a resumption of executions in several countries - India, Japan, Pakistan and Gambia - that had not used the death penalty for some time. Meanwhile, the organisation expressed alarm at an escalation in the number of executions in Iraq in 2012, with the figure up to at least 129, which included 34 executions carried out in a single day.
Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty said: “The regression we saw in some countries this year was disappointing, but it does not reverse the worldwide trend against using the death penalty. In many parts of the world, executions are becoming a thing of the past.
“Only one in ten countries in the world carries out executions. Their leaders should ask themselves why they are still applying a cruel and inhumane punishment that the rest of the world is leaving behind.
“Governments still executing have run out of arguments to justify themselves. There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the death penalty works as a special deterrent against crime.
“The real reason for the death penalty’s use can often be found elsewhere. In 2012, we were once again very concerned to see countries executing for what appeared to be political purposes - either as a populist measure, or as an outright tool of repression.”
Overall, as in 2011, the top five executing countries in the world last year were China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and USA, with Yemen close behind. Methods of executions included beheading, hanging, firing squad and lethal injection. In Saudi Arabia, the body of one man executed through beheading was displayed in a public 'crucifixion' display. People faced the death penalty for a range of crimes including non-violent, drug-related and economic offences, but also for 'apostasy', 'blasphemy' and 'adultery' - acts that should not be considered crimes at all.
The report shows that there were executions in the following countries in 2012: China (several thousand suspected), Iran (314+), Iraq (129+), Saudi Arabia (79+), USA (43), Yemen (28+), Sudan (19+), Afghanistan (14), Somalia (12+),Gambia (9), Japan (7), North Korea (6+), Palestinian Authority/Hamas (6), Taiwan (6), Belarus (3+), Botswana (2), Bangladesh (1), India (1), Pakistan (1), and the UAE (1).
However, many countries do not release official information on their use of capital punishment and several countries are thought to have executed many more than the minimum figures compiled by Amnesty. For example in China, where data on the death penalty is considered a state secret, it’s believed that several thousand people were executed last year alone.
Following progress toward abolition in previous years, the region saw further progress in 2012. Benin took legislative steps to remove the death penalty from its laws and Ghana plans to abolish the death penalty in its new Constitution. There are now no prisoners on death row in Sierra Leone. However, executions and death sentences imposed in the region increased substantially from 2011 to 2012, due to higher figures reported from Sudan and Gambia. August saw the execution of nine people in Gambia - the country’s first in almost three decades. Following an international outcry, President Yahya Jammeh announced a “conditional” moratorium on executions which would be “automatically lifted” if crime rates increased. In Sudan, there were at least 19 executions and 199 death sentences.
As in earlier years, the USA was the only country in the Americas to carry out executions. The total number (43) was the same as in 2011, but only nine US states carried out executions in 2012 compared to 13 in 2011. Connecticut became the 17th abolitionist state in April, while a referendum on the abolition of the death penalty was narrowly defeated in California in November. The English-speaking Caribbean remained execution-free; 12 death sentences were recorded in three of the sub-region’s 12 countries.
The Asia-Pacific region saw some disappointing setbacks in 2012, with India, Japan and Pakistan resuming executions after long periods when these countries were execution-free. In November, India carried out its first execution since 2004 when Ajmal Kasab, one of the gunmen involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was hanged. In Japan, three death row inmates were executed in March - followed by another four later in the year - ending a 20-month hiatus in executions there. China once again executed more people than the rest of the world put together, but due to the secrecy surrounding the use of the death penalty in the country, it was not possible to obtain accurate figures.
There were also positive developments in the region. Vietnam did not carry out any death sentences, while Singapore observed a moratorium on the death penalty and Mongolia ratified a key international treaty committing the country to abolition. The Pacific sub-region continued to be a virtually death penalty-free area.
Europe and Central Asia
As in previous years, Belarus was the only country in Europe and Central Asia to carry out executions, and did so under strict secrecy, with at least three men put to death in 2012. Latvia became the 97th country in the world to become abolitionist for all crimes, after removing the last capital crimes from its legislation during 2012.
Middle East and North Africa
Although the Middle East and North Africa saw a few positive developments, use of the death penalty in the region was still a cause of great concern. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen saw continued high levels of executions; 99 per cent of all executions in the region were carried out in these four countries. In particular, there was an alarming rise in Iraq’s use of the death penalty, where at least 129 people were put to death - almost double the 2011 figure of 68. As in 2011, the high number of executions in Iran meant only China executed more people last year; 314 executions were acknowledged by the authorities but the real number is almost certainly much higher as scores of other executions not officially acknowledged were also recorded. The conflict in Syria made it impossible to confirm whether the death penalty was used there in 2012.