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Three Countries Were Responsible for 70 Percent of the World’s Executions in 2014

An Amnesty International report found that conflict and terrorism led governments around the world to execute nearly 500 more people last year than they did in 2013.
April 1, 2015, 9:30am
Photo by Arash Khamoushi/ISNA/AP

Conflict and terrorism led governments around the world to sentence to death nearly 500 more people last year than they did in 2013, prompting Amnesty International to express alarm over the increase on Wednesday in the human rights organization's annual report on capital punishment.

Though the number of executions measured by Amnesty in 2014 fell by a sizable 22 percent to 607 worldwide, governments in Egypt, Nigeria, and other nations responded to "real or perceived threats to state security" by stepping up the number of death sentences handed down, said researchers.

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Since 2009, Amnesty's report has excluded executions in China due to a lack of reliable data from the country, which is believed to put more people to death than the rest of the world combined. Researchers were similarly unable to estimate or distinguish judicial executions from other forms of violence in Syria, where a four-year civil war has claimed the lives of some 220,000 people.

Related: China made a New Year's resolution: To stop harvesting the organs of executed prisoners 

Twenty-two countries carried out executions in 2014, the same as the previous year, but seven of those were states that resumed judicial killings after a hiatus of one or more years. Those countries were Belarus, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Jordan, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Three nations — Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia — were responsible for 70 percent of the executions recorded by Amnesty. Activists at the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center said the Iranian government's official capital punishment toll of 289 is likely much higher. The activists put the figure at 721, with a majority of inmates put to death for drug crimes — an application of the penalty that opponents say is particularly heinous. Already this year, the Center has reported 258 executions in Iran, only 73 of which were announced by the government.

In Saudi Arabia, where Amnesty recorded at least 90 executions, some of the cases stemmed from accusations of witchcraft and sorcery, according to the report.

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The US remains one of the few industrialized countries that carries out executions. American courts put 35 people to death in 2014, four fewer than the year before. Inmates were executed in seven US states, but only four — Texas, Missouri, Florida, and Oklahoma — accounted for 89 percent of the executions.

Several botched executions and high-profile killings of mentally incapacitated convicts in the US captured the media's attention and were widely discussed on social media. In April, to cite just one example, convicted murderer Clayton Lockett audibly gasped, mumbled, and writhed for roughly 40 minutes at an Oklahoma penitentiary before the cocktail lethal drugs administered by the state took effect.

Related: Documents reveal 'bloody mess' at botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett. Read more here. 

Amnesty said they were heartened by both the decrease in US executions and an uptick in awareness about the issue among the American public. According to a Pew Research Center poll taken last year, 55 percent of Americans favor the death penalty, a stark drop from the 78 percent that felt the same way less than 20 years ago.

On Monday, the American Pharmacists Association discouraged its members from providing drugs that could be used for lethal injections, stating, "Such activities are fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of health care."

"The trend in the US has continued, and we've had fewer death sentences and fewer executions," James Clark, a senior death penalty campaigner at Amnesty USA, told VICE News. "It's clear that more and more states in the US are recognizing that it's a broken system."

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Internationally, widespread instability and the specter of terrorism gave rise to an increase in death sentences. Last year, China, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq executed people for crimes tied to alleged terrorist activities. In China, at least 21 people were put to death for what the state said were terrorist crimes in the restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Jordan and Pakistan both resumed executions in December following dramatic terrorist incidents. Jordan lifted its moratorium after the Islamic State burned a captured Jordanian pilot to death, while Pakistan's move was spurred by the Taliban's Peshawar school massacre, which killed more than 150 people, mostly children.

In Egypt, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sentenced at least 509 people to death. In April, an Egyptian judge handed down a death sentences for 683 defendants tied to a 2013 attack on a police station that left two policemen dead. Though the number of death sentences was later reduced to 183, advocates cited unfair and lightning-quick trials as violations of the defendants' rights. At the time of the original sentencing, a spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the verdicts "clearly appear not to meet basic fair trial standards."

Amid the backdrop of attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram, Nigerian courts similarly handed down mass death sentence verdicts. Amnesty researchers counted 659 death sentences in Nigeria in 2014, an astronomical rise from the 141 handed down the year prior.

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Related: Should there be a death penalty? Read more here.

In total, Amnesty recorded 2,466 death sentences in 2014, up from 1,925 the year before.

"In 2014 we saw this idea that a perceived threat of terrorism could be combated with the death penalty," Clark said. "There's no evidence or reason to believe that the death penalty is a particularly effective way to combat terrorism.

"It's definitely a problem that states are looking at the death penalty as a solution to any problem," he added.

The trend of treating terrorism as an exceptional circumstance worthy of execution extended to the US, where Attorney General Eric Holder — an opponent of capital punishment — agreed to allow federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who admitted to taking part in the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2012.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford