In 2012, four countries that had not used the death penalty in several years were on Amnesty International's list. Missing was China, which keeps its figures secret but is estimated to far outpace others in executions.
The number of executions carried out globally has dropped steadily over the past decade, but that downward momentum stalled in 2012, according to a report released Wednesday by Amnesty International.
The organization recorded 682 executions around the world last year, up two from 2011. That tally included executions in four countries that had not used the death penalty in several years – India, Japan, Pakistan, and Gambia – and a doubling of the number of executions in Iraq, from 68 in 2011 to 129 in 2012.
“The regression we saw in some countries this year was disappointing, but it does not reverse the worldwide trend against using the death penalty,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s secretary general, in a statement.
Since 2003, Amnesty reports, the number of countries using the death penalty has dropped from 28 to 21, and the number of countries that have completely abolished the penalty has risen from 80 to 97.
The organization’s data, however, exhibit one glaring omission: They do not include figures for China, widely believed to execute more people than all other countries in the world combined. The Chinese government considers execution figures a state secret, but Chinese human rights watchdog Dui Hua estimates that the country kills up to 5,000 people each year for a wide spectrum of offenses, including drug trafficking and financial crimes. (To learn more about controversy surrounding the death penalty in China, read about the wealthy businesswoman originally sentenced to death for failing to repay investor loans last year.)
Trailing China in Amnesty’s top five “executing countries” in 2012 were Iran (314), Iraq (129), Saudi Arabia (79), and the United States (43). Together those five countries accounted for four of every five executions recorded globally last year.
Indeed, only 10 percent of the world’s countries use the death penalty in a given year, the Amnesty report notes, the vast majority clustered in the Middle East and East Asia. A few of those countries, notably North Korea, are widely believed to execute far more than the number they publicly record (North Korea reported 6 executions in 2012).
While the report noted that the number of US states conducting executions fell from 13 in 2011 to nine in 2012, the total number of uses of the death penalty in the country remained constant. One-third of executions in the US (15) occurred in Texas.
Several high-profile executions and death penalty sentences have already become global flashpoints in 2013. In January, for instance, Saudi Arabia sparked international outrage for beheading a Sri Lankan woman charged at age 17 with killing a child left in her care.
The same month, an Indonesian court sentenced a British woman to death for drug trafficking (she claims to have been intimidated into the crime by a gang).
And in March, prosecutors in the US state of Colorado announced they would seek the death penalty for James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people at a movie theater in a Denver suburb last summer.