Before we get to the grim news, let’s start with this: the world saw fewer executions in 2018.
There were 690 recorded executions last year (excluding China—we’ll get to that in a bit), significantly less than 2017’s 993, according to an annual review by Amnesty International. It’s the fourth consecutive year that numbers have dipped after a decade-high 1,634 deaths in 2015.
A number of factors contribute to this. In Iran, for example, drug law reforms have significantly impacted their numbers. The report also names Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia as states that have decreased the number of executions.
“The dramatic global fall in executions proves that even the most unlikely countries are starting to change their ways and realize the death penalty is not the answer,” Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo said in a statement.
But while capital punishment is on a global decline, its shadow lingers in the 53 countries that continue to practice it. The world’s top five executioners are all in Asia: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Iraq. Amnesty International’s report shows that a number of countries are, unfortunately, bucking the trend. Last year, Thailand executed 26-year-old Theerasak Longji via lethal injection. It’s the country’s first since 2009. Singapore and Japan have also executed more people in 2018 than in previous years.
Getting accurate figures can be a challenge, especially in closely-guarded countries.
But one clear trend is that the number one perpetrator in executions remains unchallenged: China. The specific number is kept secret by the Chinese state but a rough estimate blows everyone else out of the water. China has reportedly issued more than a thousand executions in 2018—significantly more than the rest of the countries combined.
Vietnam practices the same secrecy, although its government has recently disclosed that it executed 85 people in 2018. North Korea is also known to keep its figures hidden although a South Korean human rights group has identified over 300 public execution sites in the hermit kingdom.