Amnesty International says the total number of judicial executions worldwide dropped in 2016 from a historical high the previous year, largely due to decreases in Iran and Pakistan -- two of the world’s top executioners.
But the London-based nongovernmental organization said in a report issued on April 11 that the overall number of executions in 2016 was still higher than the average recorded for the previous decade.
Other top executioners during 2016 were China, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
Chiara Sangiorgio, an advisor to Amnesty's death penalty research team, told RFE/RL there also are increasingly worrying efforts by authorities in some countries to hide the scale of executions that are carried out.
Critically, the numbers presented by the group do not include thousands of executions it says are thought to have been carried out in China, where information about the use of the death penalty remains classified as a state secret.
In fact, Sangiorgio said, China continues to be the world’s top executioner, using the death penalty in 2016 more than all other countries in the world combined.
But Amnesty has refused to publish specific estimates about the use of the death penalty in China since 2009, saying Chinese authorities misrepresent the group’s numbers.
The latest report estimates that executions in China in 2016 were thought to number “in the thousands” -- probably less than 10,000 and probably fewer than in 2015.
But it said “it remains impossible to verify or quantify” China’s claims about the reduction of executions in the country.
“Amnesty International therefore reiterates its challenge to the Chinese authorities to be transparent and make such information publicly available,” the report says.
Not including China, Iran alone accounted for 55 percent of the judicial executions in 2016 that were recorded by Amnesty International.
Those 567 confirmed executions in Iran compared to 977 the previous year, a decrease of 42 percent.
But Amnesty says the majority of executions in Iran were for crimes that did not meet the international standard of “most serious crimes.”
Many people were put to death for alleged drug-related offenses and “vague offenses such as ‘enmity against God,'" it says.
Amnesty also says many death penalty convictions in Iran are thought to have been issued by judicial officials on the basis of confessions obtained through the use of torture.
In some cases, the report says, men were executed after confessing to crimes that had occurred months after they had been arrested.
Videotaped confessions also were aired on state television before trials took place in a pattern described by Amnesty as a blatant violation of the defendants’ right to a fair trial.
At least two juvenile offenders and eight women were executed by Iranian authorities, it says.
Most executions in Iran during 2016 were by hanging. At least 33 executions in Iran during 2016 were carried out publicly.
Amnesty says the number of executions in Pakistan also fell dramatically, to 87 in 2016 compared to 326 in 2015.
But Sangiorgio says Pakistan is still one of the world’s top executioners.
She says there also are concerns about confessions thought to have been obtained by torturing defendants in death penalty cases.
And while the number of executions carried out in Pakistan declined in 2016, the total number of death penalty verdicts issued during the year rose significantly – including at least 133 death sentences issued by secretive military courts and 277 by civilian courts. It said that 31 were issued by special antiterrorism courts.
Again, Sangiorgio said, Amnesty is concerned about the contravention of international law and standards in Pakistan’s death penalty trials for crimes such as “blasphemy,” “insulting the prophet of Islam,” and so-called “crimes against the state” – none of which met the threshold of “most serious crimes” under international law.
Amnesty recorded six judicial executions in Afghanistan in 2016, all on convictions of terrorism-related offenses.
Sangiorgio says Amnesty International was concerned about forced confessions in Afghanistan and statements by authorities that they were using the death penalty in order to deter future terrorist attacks.
She says there is no evidence to support claims by authorities that the death penalty has any impact on the willingness of terrorists to carry out attacks.
FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS
Belarus was singled out in the report as the only country in Europe that carried out the death penalty during 2016, with a total of at least four executions in murder cases.
Amnesty noted that lawyers for the defendants claimed that vital evidence was omitted during their trials.
Although Kazakhstan has continued to observe a moratorium on executions since 2003, an Almaty court in November issued a death sentence against Ruslan Kulekbaev for his alleged involvement in a terrorist attack that killed 10 people last July.
Amnesty also noted that there are increasing calls in Russia from some politicians to reinstate the death penalty for terrorism-related crimes.
But a death penalty bill submitted to Russia’s State Duma in March did not become law.
THE UNITED STATES
The United States was the only country in the Americas region that carried out executions during 2016.
But Amnesty said it was encouraged by a continued decrease in the number of executions and death sentences there during 2016.
The 20 executions in the United States during the year was the lowest number there since 1991. The 32 death sentences issued during 2016 was the lowest in any year since 1973.
It said 2016 was the first time since 2006 that the United States was not among the top five global executioners.