Executions and death sentences continued to drop globally in 2017 after hitting record-high levels in previous years, with Iran and Pakistan remaining among the world’s top five executioners, Amnesty International said on April 12.
The London-based human rights watchdog said in its latest report – Death Sentences And Executions 2017 – that positive measures, such as legal amendments in Iran to limit capital punishment for drug-related crimes, and notable reductions in the number of death sentences worldwide have contributed to a 4 percent drop in executions compared to the previous year.
The number of executions – 993 – returned to levels recorded before the 2015 peak, when more than 1,600 people were put to death, Amnesty said.
More than half of recorded executions -- 507 -- were carried out in Iran, followed by Saudi Arabia, with 146, Iraq, with 125, and Pakistan, with 60 confirmed executions.
However, the number does not include thousands of executions carried out by China, which remains by far the world’s top executioner but does not disclose data on executions and treats such information as a state secret.
At least five people in Iran last year were reportedly executed for crimes committed before they were 18 years of age, while juvenile offenders remained on death row in Pakistan, the report said.
"We remain highly concerned about the continued practice of the death penalty [in Iran] in clear violation of protections established by international law and standards," Chiara Sangiorgio, Amnesty International’s adviser on the death penalty, told RFE/RL.
At least 31 public executions were carried out in Iran, where hanging remained the main method of execution, the same as in Pakistan.
Both Iran and Pakistan saw a decline in the number of executions compared to the previous year – some 10 percent in Iran and more than 30 percent in Pakistan.
The report said a record-high number of people -- at least 7,000 -- remained on death row in Pakistan, almost 5,000 in Punjab Province alone.
In Afghanistan, five people were put to death by hanging, the report said, in what appeared to be a hasty response to a growing number of terrorist attacks.
"The executions appeared to be carried out, in fact, in reaction to attacks that were carried out in the country. We know that the death penalty does not help solve that problem, and that was our appeal to the president of Afghanistan -- not to move ahead with executions anymore because they won't help the country reach the stability which I think we all want to see,” Sangiorgio told RFE/RL.
In the majority of countries where people were sentenced to death or executed, the death penalty was imposed after proceedings that did not meet international fair trial standards. Among the countries cited were Iran, Pakistan, Belarus, Iraq, and China.
Military courts sentenced a high number of civilians to death in Pakistan, the report noted.
"We remain nonetheless highly concerned about the fact that nearly half of the executions that we recorded [in Pakistan] are actually carried out after people were sentenced to death for terrorism-related offenses by a military court,” Sangiorgio told RFE/RL.
In Iran and Iraq, the report says, “confessions” of guilt reportedly obtained through torture were broadcast on television before the trial took place, in violation of the presumption of innocence.
Amnesty also noted that people with mental or intellectual disabilities were put to death or remained under death sentence in Pakistan and the United States.
The sole country in Europe and Central Asia to carry out the death penalty remained Belarus, where two people convicted for rape and murder, Siarhei Vostrykau and Kiryl Kazachok, were executed by shooting in 2017. The two were put to death in secret, in May and October, the report says.
"What I find particularly concerning about the use of the death penalty in Belarus is the way in which executions are carried out. No notification is being given. The families of the prisoners only find out about the executions when they go to the prison expecting to visit or to leave parcels for the [detained] relative," Sangiorgio told RFE/RL.
Russia, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan continued to observe moratoriums on executions, although in Kazakhstan one man remained under sentence of death after being convicted and sentenced in 2016 for terrorism.
In Russia, senior legislator Vasily Piskaryov and the Kremlin-backed head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, publicly called on two separate occasions last year for the reintroduction of the death penalty. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that Russia's moratorium on the use of the death penalty will not be suspended, the report said.
Among the positive developments, the report highlights the progress in sub-Saharan Africa, where Guinea became the 20th state of the region to abolish the death penalty for all crimes.
Besides Guinea, Mongolia also scrapped the death penalty for all crimes, taking the total number of abolitionist countries to 106 in 2017.
“Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen a huge positive shift in the global outlook for the death penalty, but more urgent steps need to be taken to stop the horrifying practice of state killing,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general.
“The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it. We know that by galvanizing the support of people worldwide, we can stand up to this cruel punishment and end the death penalty everywhere,” Shetty said.