The world is moving closer to the final abolition of the death penalty, according to the latest figures published to coincide with World Day against the Death Penalty yesterday. At present, five countries are responsible for almost all the state executions carried out in the past year.
So far, 137 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, while 60 retain its use, usually for people convicted of murder. At least 1,252 people were known to have been executed in 24 countries in 2007. Of all the executions in 2007, 88% took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US.
By the end of 2007, 91 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes, with Albania, the Cook Islands and Rwanda all recently abandoning capital punishment, said Reprieve, which represents death-row prisoners around the world. "The reality is that, despite the progress that has been made over the last 18 months, there are still thousands of people being executed every year around the world," said Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve.
In Europe, only Belarus retains capital punishment. Abandonment of the death penalty is a prerequisite for joining the EU. The US is the only country in the Americas to have carried out any executions since 2003 but the 53 executions in 2006 represented the lowest annual total for a decade, and death sentences continue to drop from a peak in the mid-1990s.
China makes by far the most use of the penalty. "Asia leads the way globally as the continent that carries out the most executions," said Amnesty International's UK director, Kate Allen. "The number of executions carried out by China last year makes them the world's No 1 'executioner'. This year we have seen a noticeable increase in the use of the death penalty in Japan. Executions in that country are typically shrouded in secrecy. In Pakistan there are approximately 7,500 people, including children, on death row."
In some areas with a long tradition of executions, such as central Asia, there is a clear move towards abolition.
In Africa, only six countries carried out executions in 2006. In seven states the death penalty is applied for consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex, while Iran retains the death penalty for a large number of offences, among them "cursing the Prophet", adultery and drinking alcohol. Last year, Iran executed 317 people, including eight juveniles.