Global use of the death penalty has decreased for the fourth-consecutive year and fallen to its lowest level in a decade, according to a new report by Amnesty International (AI).
The number of recorded executions fell to 657 worldwide, 33 fewer than in 2018, with all carried out in just 20 countries, according to the report published on April 21.
"The death penalty is an abhorrent and inhuman punishment, and there is no credible evidence that it deters crime more than prisons terms," said Clare Algar, Amnesty International's senior director for research, advocacy, and policy. "A large majority of countries recognize this and it's encouraging to see that executions continue to fall worldwide."
However, the human rights watchdog said lack of transparency in reporting executions meant the real number could be much higher.
The figures did not include use of the death penalty in China, for example, by far the world's greatest executioner. The number of people executed there is classified, but is believed to be in the thousands.
Iran, with at least 251 executions; Saudi Arabia, with 184; Iraq, with at least 100; and Egypt, with at least 32, rounded out the world's top-five executing countries, according to the report, titled Death Sentences And Executions.
Algar singled out a number of countries for their lack of transparency in using the death penalty.
"Executions are taking place in secret all over the world," Algar said. "In countries from Belarus to Botswana and Iran to Japan, executions were being carried out without any advance notice to the families, lawyers or in some cases the individuals themselves."
China, North Korea, and Vietnam continued "to hide the full extent of their use of the death penalty by restricting access to death penalty information,” Algar said.
She suggested that the absence of openness was telling.
"Even countries that are the strongest proponents of the death penalty struggle to justify its use, and opt for secrecy," Algar said. "Many of them take pains to hide how they use the death penalty, knowing it will not stand up to international scrutiny."
One such country is Iran, where the use of the death penalty fell to a historical low, but which AI admonished for the secret execution of two boys who were arrested and convicted at the age of 15 "on multiple rape charges following an unfair trial."
The two were not aware that they had been sentenced to death prior to their executions, and their "bodies bore lash marks, indicating they had been whipped before their deaths."
The number of people executed in Iran fell by at least two from the previous year, when some 253 cases of the death penalty were recorded. However, four of those killed were below 18, according to the rights watchdog.
Amnesty International attributed the fall in the overall number of executions in part to "significant reductions" in the number of confirmed executions in states such as Egypt, Japan, and Singapore that it said are traditionally strong adherents of the death penalty.
Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan were among the countries that continued to respect official moratoriums on executions, according to the report. And no executions were carried out in Afghanistan for the first time since 2010.
A "significant downward trend" was also reported in Pakistan, where 14 executions were carried out for the second year in a row. That followed a spike in the use of the death penalty in 2015.
Of those countries that defied the global trend away from capital punishment, Saudi Arabia, with 184 executions, was criticized for its increased use of the death penalty, "including as a weapon against political dissidents." It marked the highest number of executions in the Middle Eastern country on record.
The report said that the number of executions nearly doubled in one year in Iraq, where the death penalty was employed at least 100 times in 2019. The rise was attributed largely to the punishment of individuals accused of being part of the Islamic State extremist group.
The United States continued its 11-year run as the only country to carry out executions in the Americas region, with 22, but recorded fewer executions and death sentences.
Amnesty said the year 2019 in the United States "was dominated by significant progress towards its abolition at the state level and yet the pursuit of executions by federal authorities."