– The number of recorded executions carried out worldwide rose 14 percent last year, as anti-terrorism measures in Iraq and hardline drug polices in Iran accounted for more than half of all reported government-sanctioned killings in 2013.
In a report released Thursday, the human rights group Amnesty International said at least 778 people were executed in 22 countries last year, though the total did not include several nations, most notably China, where official execution statistics are a state secret. The Chinese government is estimated to put thousands of prisoners to death by firing squad every year, dwarfing the rest of the world.
“China is a case of its own – nothing comes close to them in terms of real executions,” said Jan Wetzel, advisor on the death penalty to Amnesty International. “However we do see some glimmers of hope, especially in regard to internal discussions – within the Chinese elite more doubt is being created over the death penalty.”
Outside of China, four in five executions took place in three adjoining Middle Eastern states: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
An escalation in sectarian conflict in Iraq and increased government crackdowns saw a 30-percent upswing in death sentences in the country. Most of the at least 169 killings there fell under Iraq’s strict 2005 anti-terrorism law, passed in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. In its report, Amnesty expressed concern over the law’s language, vaguely encompassing “acts such as provoking, planning, financing, committing or supporting others to commit terrorism.”
“In Iraq, we have to see this against the worsening security situation – armed attacks amongst insurgents are on the rise and the Iraqi government wants to use the death penalty as a quick fix, to pretend to be tough,” Wetzel told IPS.
But sectarian attacks in Iraq have risen along with increased use of the death penalty, says Wetzel, belying the intended effect of the death penalty.
“We know the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect vs. long term imprisonment.”
Amnesty was unable to determine if judicial executions were carried out in Egypt or Syria, though Syria’s brutal civil war would raise questions over the legality of any such confirmed killings. Egypt announced this week the mass death sentences of 528 alleged supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi.
At least 369 were put to death in Iran during 2013, though Amnesty cited hundreds more not officially reported.
Iran, one of four countries that practices public executions – along with North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia – wields the morbid spectacle as a political tool, says Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, co-founder of the advocacy group Iran Human Rights.
“The Iranian government uses the death penalty to spread fear in society,” Amiry-Moghaddam told IPS. “The timing of executions over the past 10 years have been carefully coordinated – for instance when authorities fear protests or right after protests, the number of executions has increased, but when the international community is focused on Iran, the numbers are quite low.”
Most Iranian executions stem from drug cases and often target the poorest in Iranian society, including Afghan migrants allegedly involved in opium and heroin smuggling. Public hangings, of which Iran Human Rights estimates 59 took place in 2013, are not only death sentences but torture, says Amiry-Moghaddam.
“They are pulled up by a crane and it often takes more than 10 minutes until they die – it’s a slow death,” he said.
Footage emerged this year of one such hanging, showing the prisoner crying out for his mother who responds “My child, my child,” as he dangles from a noose, legs flailing.
Earlier this month, U.N. anti-drug chief Yuri Fedotov drew criticism when he applauded Iranian authorities for their effort to curb the flow of illicit narcotics within Iran’s borders, even as several European countries withdrew funding from U.N. anti-drug programmes in Iran due to its use of the death penalty.
“Iran takes a very active role to fight against illicit drugs,” said Fedetov. “It’s very impressive.”
Although capital punishment is not forbidden by international law, torture is, as several recent cases in the U.S. brought to light.
In January, an Ohio man took more than 15 minutes to die after being injected with an experimental new sedative and painkiller cocktail intended to replace traditional drugs European pharmaceutical companies no longer agree to provide if they may be used for killings. In Oklahoma, one prisoner’s last words upon being injected with another mixture were, “I feel my whole body burning.”
In the Americas, the United States was the only country to put inmates to death. Just nine, mostly southern, states accounted for 39 of 43 executions in the U.S. Though executions fell 10 percent nationwide, Texas put to death 16 prisoners, over a third more than in 2012.
Amnesty did report “progress towards abolition was recorded in all regions of the world.” The number of countries practicing the death penalty has nearly halved in the past two decades.
Though Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Vietnam all resumed executions in 2013, only nine countries – Bangladesh, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan the United States and Yemen – have carried out killings in each of the past five years. In Europe and Central Asia, no executions took place.
But Saudi Arabia, in contravention of international law, put to death at least three prisoners for crimes allegedly committed when they were under 18.