State-sanctioned executions are sharply on the rise, according to a new Amnesty International report which found that 1,634 people were executed in 2015 – a 25-year high, and 50 percent more than were recorded in the previous year.
Overall, the top five executioners in the world, by number of people executed, are believed to be China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, in that order.
However, the 1,634 figure only accounts for official state execution data, meaning it does not include data from China, a major proponent of capital punishment who considers execution data classified information.
Watchdog groups like the The Dia Hua Foundation, a group focusing on human rights in China, estimates that there were around 2,400 executions in 2013 – the most recent data the group has published, and a relatively low figure compared to 12,000 executions in 2002.
China's efforts to rein in the numbers of executions and reform the criminal justice system in 2007 gave the Supreme People's Court the authority to review death sentences on a case by case basis. Still, defendants on death row are often executed for nonviolent crimes such as drug dealing, illegal fundraising and espionage. Dia Hua says on their website that final data from 2014 "is unlikely to show a downward trend in capital punishment" and that any previous efforts to scale back the numbers of executions "are likely to be offset by an uptick in death sentences handed down during the anti-terrorism campaign in Xinjiang and the nationwide campaign against corruption."
Not including estimates of China's death sentences, Amnesty found that executions in Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia accounted for about 90 percent of all executions worldwide.
Amnesty attributes the overall spike, in part, to Pakistan lifting its moratorium on civilian executions in December 2014. In 2015, more than 320 people were executed in Pakistan – the highest figure in Amnesty's records.
"The rise in executions last year is profoundly disturbing. Not for the last 25 years have so many people been put to death by states around the world," Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's Secretary General said. "In 2015 governments continued relentlessly to deprive people of their lives on the false premise that the death penalty would make us safer."
"Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have all put people to death at unprecedented levels, often after grossly unfair trials," Shetty added. "This slaughter must end."
Iran, meanwhile, executed at least 977 people – mostly for drug-related crimes. Saudi Arabia put to death at least 158 people – at least 76 percent more than in the previous year. In Saudi Arabia death penalty cases, "most were beheaded," the report notes, "but authorities also used firing squads and sometimes displayed executed bodies in public."
China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, according to the report, continue to put people to death for drug trafficking, corruption, blasphemy or adultery, despite international death penalty standards which say only the "most serious" and "intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences" are eligible for capital punishment.
Last year, Reprieve, a human rights organization focused on international criminal justice, found that over 70 percent of people facing execution in Saudi Arabia were arrested for non-violent offenses, including political protest, and that reports of torture and forced confessions were widespread.
The Amnesty report also notes that Iran is one of the only countries in the world that still executes juvenile offenders. In 2015, Iran reportedly executed at least four people who were younger than 18 at the time of their alleged offense, violating a long-standing UN Economic and Social Council legal standard that says "no one under the age of 18 at the time of the crime shall be put to death."
Maya Foa, the head of the death penalty team at Reprieve said in a statement: "The huge rise in executions in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt is extremely troubling."
"The US and European countries must urgently speak out about these grave abuses by our allies," Foa added. "From mass trials and torture to death sentences handed down to political protesters and juveniles."
However, despite the rise in executions worldwide, more countries jumped on the abolition bandwagon. Fiji, Madagascar, Republic of Congo, and Suriname all scrapped the death penalty entirely in 2015, and Mongolia's government also passed legislation to abolish the death penalty, effective later this year. That brings the total number of countries which have fully abolished the death penalty to 102.
The US was the only country in the Americas to carry out executions, and carried out 28 executions, the lowest number since 1991. The US also handed down 52 death sentences – also a record low since 1977. All in all, 18 states have fully abolished the death penalty.
In 2012, the European Commission imposed strict controls on the export of drugs needed to carry out lethal injections – which have been used in US executions since 1982. The European Commission said it wanted to "ensure that no drugs were being exported from the union for use in capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
The hope was that the embargo would slow the rate of death sentences in the US. Instead, some states which still have capital punishment are considering alternative options in the event that lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or becomes too difficult to obtain. Mississippi's legislature is considering a bill that would reinstate firing squads. Virginia's governor is considering a bill that would bring back the electric chair. Oklahoma would use electrocution or firing squad. Tennessee would use electrocution. Wyoming would use the gas chamber.