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Asia's obsession with death penalty

Gabriel DomínguezApril 1, 2015

Asia-Pacific nations, excluding China, executed fewer people and issued fewer death sentences last year than in 2013, a new AI report shows. But the study also points to some worrisome trends in the region. DW examines.

Bangladesch Dhaka Gericht Kriegsverbrechen Delwar Hossain Sayeedi Protest gegen Urteil
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Monirul Alam

The number of recorded executions in the region dropped from 37 in 2013 to 32 last year, whereas the number of recorded death sentences dropped by 335 compared to 2013, a new report by Amnesty International (AI) on the use of the death penalty worldwide said.

The human rights group views the development in the Asia-Pacific as part of a global trend of states moving away from the death penalty. At least 607 executions were known to have been carried out worldwide in 2014, compared to 778 in 2013, a drop of more than 20 percent.

"The numbers speak for themselves - the death penalty is becoming a thing of the past. The few countries that still execute need to take a serious look in the mirror and ask themselves if they want to continue to violate the right to life, or join the vast majority of countries that have abandoned this ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment," said Salil Shetty, AI's Secretary General.

Symbolbild Todesstrafe Galgen
People faced the death penalty for a range of non-lethal crimes, said the reportImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Among the top executioners worldwide were Iran (289 officially announced), Saudi Arabia (at least 90), Iraq (at least 61) and the USA (35), according to the report.

These figures, however, exclude China and North Korea, where the actual number of executions is a state secret. In fact, AI estimates that the Chinese authorities carry out thousands of executions a year, more than the rest of the world combined.

According to the US-based Dui Hua Foundation, some 2,400 people were executed in China alone last year.

Nine countries

As for the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, at total of nine countries implemented capital punishment, one fewer than the year before: Afghanistan (6), China, Japan (3), Malaysia (at least 2), North Korea, Pakistan (7), Singapore (2), Taiwan (5) and Vietnam (at least 3). The most widely used methods of executions included hanging, lethal injection and shooting.

Released on April 1, the 61-page report also reveals that at least 695 new death sentences were imposed in 17 countries across the region - excluding China and North Korea - most of which were passed in Pakistan (231) Bangladesh (142), Vietnam (72) and India (64).

According to the rights group, the decrease is partly attributable to developments in Bangladesh, which in 2013 recorded the exceptionally high figure of 220 new death sentences because of the mass sentencing of 152 people for mutiny.

But why did these countries resort to capital punishment? "People faced the death penalty for a range of non-lethal crimes including robbery, drug-related crimes and economic offences," said Shetty. In addition, some countries used vaguely worded political "crimes" to put real or perceived dissidents to death, added the human rights expert.

The 61-page report also blames "unfair trials" in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, North Korea, Pakistan and Sri Lanka for this development, adding that both Beijing and Pyongyang admitted "confessions" at trials extracted through torture or other ill-treatment.

In other cases, courts imposed capital punishment for crimes such as blasphemy (Pakistan), economic crimes (China, North Korea, Vietnam), and rape that resulted in deaths (Afghanistan, India).

A worrisome trend

The AI report also indicates that more governments are resorting to capital punishment as a means to fight crime, threats against the state and terrorism - a trend described by rights activists as increasingly disturbing. AI's Secretary General Shetty said, for instance, that in China authorities made use of the death penalty as a punitive tool in the "Strike Hard" campaign against unrest in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

"Authorities executed at least 21 people during the year related to separate attacks, while three people were condemned to death in a mass sentencing rally conducted in a stadium in front of thousands of spectators," said the human rights expert.

Increased use of capital punishment can also be found in Singapore, Pakistan and Indonesia which recently resumed executions. In the aftermath of a brutal terror attack on a school in Peshawar, the Pakistani government recently reinstated the death penalty in all capital cases, thus putting thousands of prisoners' lives at risk.

It is estimated that the South Asian nation currently has more than 8,000 people on death row, one of the highest in the world. Pakistani authorities have already executed more than 60 people since capital punishment was resumed in December.

Amnesty International
The AI paper also indicates that more governments are resorting to capital punishment as a means to fight crime, threats against the state and terrorismImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has defended the implementation of the death penalty for drug offenses, saying those convicted of drug trafficking will not receive a presidential pardon given the country's "emergency" over drug use. Six men have already been executed by firing squad this year.

A glimmer of hope?

The president's tough stance has also flared tensions between Indonesia and countries like Australia and Brazil, whose citizens are among a group of up to 11 drug offenders, mostly foreigners, due to be executed soon on the prison island of Nusakambangan. Executions for drug trafficking were also recorded in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam last year.

But there is a positive note for the region. Although the governments of both Papua New Guinea and Kiribati took steps to resume executions or introduce the death penalty, the Pacific continues to be the world's only virtually death penalty-free zone, said AI.