Amnesty International today revealed that the number of executions in 2008 rose significantly compared to the previous year, while more countries in Asia made use of the death penalty than any other region of the world.
The findings, contained in the human rights organisation's annual survey of global death penalty use from January-December 2008 (Death Sentences and Executions in 2008), show that at least 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries last year, up from 1,252 in 2007. Meanwhile, there were at least 8,864 death sentences handed down in 52 different countries.
On the one hand, said Amnesty, there was comparatively good news in that only one in eight countries (25) carried out executions last year and only slightly more than a quarter (59) even retain the punishment; but the organisation warned that executions were nevertheless being carried out at an average rate of seven per day during 2008.
Amnesty's figures show that China alone carried out nearly three-quarters (72%) of the world's executions (1,718), and that 10 other countries from Asia - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan, North Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Singapore and Vietnam - also carried out judicial killings. Notable amongst these countries is Japan, which carried out 15 executions, the highest number in the country since 1975.
The Middle East is the other region notable for its reliance on capital punishment in 2008, says Amnesty, with Iran (at least 346) and Saudi Arabia (at least 102) especially prone to carrying out executions. Amnesty recently revealed that Iraq (which last year executed at least 34 people) is set to execute another 128 prisoners, reportedly in batches of 20 at a time.
Meanwhile Belarus, which executed four people last year, is shown to be the last executioner in Europe.
Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan said: "The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Beheadings, electrocutions, hangings, lethal injections, shootings and stonings have no place in the twenty-first century.
"Capital punishment is not just an act but a legalised process of physical and psychological terror that culminates in people being killed by the state. It must be brought to an end.
"The good news is that executions are only carried out by a small number of countries, which shows that we are moving closer to a death-penalty free world. By contrast, the bad news is that hundreds of people continue to be sentenced to death and suffer in the many countries that have not yet formally abolished the death penalty."
Amnesty is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances, but its report also points out that numerous death sentences have been imposed after unfair or discriminatory trials. The organisation also continued to emphasise the risk of executing innocent prisoners, noting that the USA released four people from death row last year, taking to 130 the number of death row exonerees since 1973.
However Amnesty's report also notes that 2008 saw two worrying instances of countries bucking a long-term trend toward a reduction in the number of countries and jurisdictions still using the death penalty. St Kitts and Nevis carried out the first execution in the Caribbean for five years, while Liberia introduced capital punishment for robbery, terrorism and hijacking.