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China remains the world’s biggest executioner despite global death penalty drop during Covid—Amnesty International

China's rising challenges

Amnesty International’s annual report records a general decrease in the number of global executions in 2020, but China is still the most “prolific” executioner in the world, executing thousands of people each year.

According to the report, released recently, China implemented more death sentences than the rest of the world combined. Amnesty believes thousands of executions and death sentences occurred in 2017 in China, but the Chinese government classifying the total number of death sentences and executions as state secrets, it is difficult to verify the exact number carried out.

The human rights organization revealed that the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus pandemic contributed to a trend of decline in global executions between January and December 2020. But governments in 18 countries continued executing last year.

The global trend saw the total figure fall by 5 per cent in 2019, though many Middle Eastern countries showed the opposite. After China, four Middle Eastern countries – Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – accounted for 88 per cent of all known executions in 2020, reads the report. Iran came in as the second-highest global executioner with more than 246 executions carried out between January and December 2020.

Egypt is in the third spot, which at 107 executions, tripled the number of yearly executions in 2020 compared with the year before. The 2020 toll was the highest since the number of executions peaked in 2013, following the military overthrow in July 2013 of Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. At least 109 executions were carried out in 2013, according to Amnesty. Dozens of those executions were related to political violence. Many of the trials were marred by serious human rights violations, including torture and enforced disappearances, said the report. The spike in executions in Egypt occurred between October and November when the government executed 57 people, including four women. Several human rights organisations decried the executions.

In fourth place, Iraq executed more than 45 people last year. That total was still less than half the number of executions carried out by the Iraqi authorities in 2019, said the report. Several of those cases involved prisoners in terrorism-related crimes, who according to the United Nations human rights experts, faced trials that were unjust.

With at least 27 executions, Saudi Arabia was considered the fifth top global executioner in 2020, according to the report. The number of recorded executions in Saudi Arabia fell by 85 per cent from 184 in 2019. Despite this, the criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has grown since King Salman named his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as Crown Prince and heir to the throne in June 2017 and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul in October 2018.

In a huge setback, the US became the only country in the Americas to carry out executions in 2020 after the Trump administration carried out the first federal execution in 17 years in July 2020. And yet, in 2020, the US reached its lowest figure of executions in almost 30 years.

Amnesty flagged serious concern over the continued use of the death penalty for drug-related offences which is distressing, with 15 countries last year imposing death sentences or carrying out executions. Drug-related executions were recorded in China, Iran, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, where drug-related beheadings zoomed from 16 per cent of total executions in 2016 to 40 in 2017, the report said.

The US was noted for putting people on death row who have mental or intellectual disabilities, a criticism also levelled against Japan, the Maldives, Pakistan and Singapore.

Lowest Executions in Decade

The total number of known global executions in 2020 was at least 483, said the report, which marked the lowest number of executions recorded by Amnesty in at least 10 years. The figure represented a 26 per cent decrease in the number of executions compared with 2019 and a 70 per cent fall from 1,634 global executions in 2015. This drop was primarily linked to reductions in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, according to the report.

At the same time, at 1,477 the report recorded a 36 per cent decline in newly imposed death sentences in 2020 globally, compared with the previous year. According to the report, this decline was partly due to the coronavirus pandemic disrupting and delayed criminal proceedings globally.