Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were among the top five executioners in the world in 2016, according to a new report by Amnesty International.
China still outpaces the rest of the world combined, but Iran comes in at number two, followed by Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan, with the latter four accounting for 87 percent of the executions that took place in 2016.
Amnesty International reported 1,032 state-sponsored executions worldwide in 2016, excluding China, where the true number is unknown because the government considers it a state secret. The group said it believes China executed thousands, but it didn’t offer a more precise estimate due to a lack of accurate information.
The human rights group Dui Hua estimates about 2,000 executions took place in China last year, down from a 6,500 a decade ago, said the group’s executive director, John Kamm. The tally was based on research into lower-level court cases and contacts with government officials and Chinese and Western legal scholars, Kamm said.
Iran carried out at least 567 executions, 33 of them public, according to Amnesty which said the killings accounted for 66 percent of all executions in the Mideast and North Africa. A majority of them were for drug-related offenses, according to the report.
At least eight women and two minors were among those executed by Iran in 2016, according to official sources, with Amnesty noting it was possible there were at least five more executions of children under 18 years of age. At least 78 juvenile offenders were on Iran’s death row by the end of 2016.
Riyadh executed at least 154 people in 2016, followed by Baghdad with 88 and Pakistan with 87.
Judicial executions in Libya, Yemen and Syria could not be confirmed because these countries were currently at war.
Amnesty said its figure for worldwide executions excluding China represents a 37 percent drop from 2015. The United States recorded 20 executions, its fewest in 25 years, in part because of court rulings and shortages of chemicals used in lethal injections.
China has faced longstanding pressure from the international community to curb its use of the death penalty, which reached a frenzy in 1983 with 24,000 executions after provincial courts were given powers to mete out capital punishment, according to Dui Hua.
The nation also has faced criticism for harvesting organs from executed inmates, including for sale to patients from overseas. China banned the practice in 2015 but Bequelin said it’s impossible to know whether organ harvesting for profit has ceased because the legal system operates within a “black box” with little transparency.
“China is trying to have it both ways, both getting credit and allaying international pressure over the death penalty in the county, while maintain and enforcing an elaborate system of secrecy,” Bequelin said.
Oversight of death sentence cases was returned to China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, in 2007. Since that time, the government has narrowed which crimes can bring capital punishment but still lists more than three dozen eligible offenses, including treason, separatism, spying, arson, murder, rape, robbery and human trafficking.
Chinese legal scholar Hong Daode contended that 90 percent of executions last year were for homicide cases.
“There has been a long tradition in China that the one that has taken people’s lives should pay with his own life,” said Hong, a professor of criminal law at China University of Political Science and Law.
However, Susan Trevaskes of Australia’s Griffith University, concluded in a recent study that close to half of all death sentences were handed down for drug crimes.
Efforts to reform how such cases are handled by the courts have been frustrated by the government’s attitude that all drug crimes constitute a threat to society, according to Trevaskes, author of the 2012 book “The Death Penalty in Contemporary China.”
That’s despite the fact that many perpetrators are low-level “mules” — typically poor, rural residents hired by traffickers to transport their illicit contraband but who reap minimal profit from the work, Trevaskes said.
Whatever the breakdown, Dui Hua’s Kamm said the number of executions in China remains a national embarrassment.
“Pushing for the Chinese government to release the number is perhaps the most effective way to drive it down,” he said.