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Surge in global executions

Anne-Sophie BrändlinApril 6, 2016

A new report by Amnesty International documents that governments executed more people last year than at any point in the past 25 years. What's the reason behind the surge in the death penalty across the globe?

Symbolbild Todesstrafe Galgen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Weihrauch

Amnesty International's new report on the global use of the death penalty highlights a dramatic surge in recorded executions: Last year more than 1,600 people were executed - that's 50 percent more compared to 2014.

"We are deeply alarmed by this dramatic surge," Amnesty International's death penalty expert Chiara Sangiorgio told DW. And that's only the minimum number of those cases Amnesty International could verify, she added. "The real picture of the death penalty and executions globally is definitely much higher."

The figure does not include the thousands of executions believed to have taken place in China, which is thought to be the world's top executioner. The true number of death penalties in China remains unknown, as this data is treated as a state secret.

The number of countries that carried out executions also increased in 2015. While 94 countries have capital punishment in their law books, executions took place in 25 countries compared to 22 countries in 2014. At least six countries that had not put anyone to death in 2014 did so in 2015. For example, Chad carried out ten executions for the first time in more than a decade.

Infografik Länder mit Todesstrafe Englisch

Three main culprits

According to Amnesty International, the global surge was largely fueled by three countries: Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Together, they accounted for 90 percent of all executions in 2015.

Pakistan executed more than 320 people last year - the highest number Amnesty International has ever recorded for the country. There are close to 30 crimes punishable by death penalty, including drug trafficking, adultery and rape. As a result, Pakistan has the world's largest reported death row population.

"In the past year, authorities in Pakistan have been relentlessly executing. We hear of reports of executions in Pakistan nearly every day," said Sangiorgio.

Iran executed almost 1,000 people in 2015, the vast majority for drug-related crimes. Iran is breaching international law by also executing juvenile offenders.

Bangladeshi members of an organization called Magic Movement stage a mock execution scene in protest of the beheading of eight Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia (photo: EPA/ABIR ABDULLAH)
People are protesting against the beheading of eight Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia with this mock executionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Abir Abdullah

Last year's biggest surge in executions took place in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International. "We have noticed an ongoing increase of the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia year after year," said Sangiorgio. "But last year saw a huge rise by 76 percent." Most of the people were beheaded, but authorities also used firing squads and sometimes even displayed executed bodies in public, according to the report.

Terrorism to blame for surge?

According to Amnesty, many death penalty sentences are billed as anti-terrorism measures.

"We saw executions resuming in Chad after more than ten years for alleged members of Boko Haram. Cameroon imposed 89 death sentences against alleged members of Boko Haram. And Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt imposed death sentences under special terrorism legislation," Sangiorgio said.

The same goes for Pakistan, where the government used terrorism as a reason to lift the moratorium on the death penalty in December 2014, selling it as part of its national action plan to reduce terrorism, as Pakistani lawyer Sarah Belal told DW. Belal is the director of Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit human rights law firm in Lahore.

Nooses prepared to execute men (photo: picture allince/ZUMA press)
Six countries carried out executions again in 2015 which had refrained from doing so the previous yearImage: picture alliance/ZUMA Press

But Pakistan executed few confirmed terrorists.

"Out of the 320 people that were put to death last year, only 67 were actually convicted by the anti-terrorism courts. And out of those 67, only 27 had any nexus to terrorist organizations or were being trialed for a crime that would amount to a common understanding of terrorism," she said.

Breaching international law

The death penalty is not protecting a country from terrorism, according to rights groups. "There is no scientific evidence for this claim," Sangiorgio told DW.

"The death penalty is not the solution to stop the circle of violence by terrorists. If authorities really want to be serious about tackling bomb attacks, they really have to work on the root causes of terrorism and extremism," she said.

Other reasons why people were executed last year included drug trafficking, drug possession, corruption, adultery and blasphemy. These crimes do not meet the international legal standards of "most serious" to which the use of the death penalty must be restricted under international law.

Amnesty International completely opposes the death penalty in all cases. "For us, the death penalty is a violation of human rights," Sangiorgio said. "Not only because executions violate the right to life, but also because we keep on seeing that the sentences are often imposed after unfair trials and based on forced confessions after torture and ill-treatment of prisoners."

Innocent people on death row in Pakistan

Unfair trials and lack of legal representation are a major concern in many countries.

"The problem is that most of the people who are sentenced to death in Pakistan are mentally ill, extremely poor, have ineffective legal assistance and are thus often innocent," Sarah Belal said. Her organization provides pro bono legal services to prisoners on death row in Pakistan.

"There is an extremely high rate of wrongful convictions in Pakistan," she added.

"In fact, data over the years has shown that in most countries across the world that employ the death penalty, whether it's Pakistan or the United States, there are a lot of mistakes and too many innocent people are losing their lives," she said.

Despite the surge in recorded executions, there's also some good news. According to Amnesty International, countries that still execute citizens belong to a small and increasingly isolated minority. Four countries completely abolished the death penalty last year: Fiji, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Suriname.

People demonstrating against death penalty in Pakistan (photo: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ali)
People took to the streets in Pakistan to protest against the death penaltyImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ali

This means that 102 countries - the majority of countries in the world - have now fully abolished capital punishment.

In Sub-Saharan Africa the number of executions recorded dropped last year, and several countries are discussing the abolition of the death penalty. One example is Zimbabwe, which celebrated ten years without any executions.

"The movement towards abolition of the death penalty has been quite concrete in the Sub-Saharan Africa region," Sangiorgio said, adding that she thinks Guinea, Burkina Faso and Kenya will likely be the next countries to abolish the death penalty.

Positive news has also come out of the Americas region, where only the United States has carried out executions in the past seven years.

While more than 20,000 people were on death row by the end of 2015, the global trend is clearly going towards restricting the death penalty. "There is even a debate happening in countries that still practice capital punishment", Sangiorgio said. "We feel comfortable saying that the death penalty is becoming a thing of the past."