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Death penalty: Executions at highest rate in five years

Matthias von Hein
May 16, 2023

At least 883 people were executed worldwide in 2022, says Amnesty International — that's the highest number recorded in five years. Many executions took place in Iran and Saudi Arabia, including of political prisoners.

Protests featuring nooses and the Iranian flag in Iran
At least 576 people were killed in state-sanctioned executions in Iran last yearImage: Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Helge Limburg remembers everything about January 7. For the German parliamentarian from the Green Party, it was a "day of grief and anger" — the day Mohammad Mehdi Karami was executed in Iran. The karate champion was only 22 years old when he was "murdered," as Limburg told DW, "because there was no due process."

Limburg did not know Mohammed Mehdi Karami personally, but the politician declared himself a sponsor of the young Iranian. It was a political act, in solidarity with the democracy movement in Iran — and above all, in the hope that he could prevent Karami's execution.

Despite the distance and the fact that he never had the opportunity to speak with Karami by phone, Limburg described how their relationship developed. "I had occasional contact with those near him and I felt very close to him. My family also shared in his excitement and suffering," said Limburg.

Excessive use of death penalty in Iran, Saudi Arabia

Karami is one of at least 209 people who have been sent to the gallows in Iran this year, according to Volker Turk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Iran is among the world's most excessive users of the death penalty. That is reflected in the latest report from the human rights organization Amnesty International, which covers death sentences and executions in 2022. In Iran, at least 576 people were killed in state-sanctioned executions last year — almost twice as many as in 2021.

"The Iranian regime fears for its power," analyzed Renata Alt, a German politician with the neoliberal Free Democrat Party (FDP) who chairs the German parliament's Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid. "That is why it is important that we use these political sponsorships to generate awareness for the many prisoners. Otherwise, it is likely that even more people would be executed," Alt said in a written statement to DW. Many lawmakers in Germany and abroad have taken up similar political sponsorships of prisoners in Iran and other countries.

On the other side of the Persian Gulf, the number of people killed has also skyrocketed. In Saudi Arabia, 196 people died by execution in 2021. "Believe it or not, Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in a single day," Agnes Callamard, Amnesty's secretary-general, said during the presentation of the report. That means Iran and Saudi Arabia combined account for more than 80% of registered executions worldwide.

Beheaded, hanged, shot, poisoned

In total, at least 883 people were beheaded, hanged, shot, or poisoned in government-approved executions in 2022, across 20 countries. That's the highest number of executions in five years, and a drastic increase compared with 2021: more than 300 cases, or over 50%.

These statistics do not include the estimated thousands of executions carried out in China — which guards its implementation of the death penalty as a state secret. The same applies to Vietnam. North Korea, where it is suspected that the death penalty is also used excessively, is also not included in the figures.

The death penalty is also used in countries that Germany describes as its partners, such as Japan, the United States and Singapore. Whenever Boris Mijatovic, a spokesperson for the German Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, expresses criticism of the death penalty to representatives of these countries, he often receives one of two reactions: "Either the person I am talking to is embarrassed, and feels guilty or they come across as very self-confident in the sense of 'what are you Westerners trying to tell me?'" the Green Party parliamentarian told DW.

protest action against executions in Cologne
Germany sees regular protests against executions in IranImage: Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

"Especially in the Gulf region or in Asia or in North America, where this is an old topic, one must be very imaginative to make any progress," said Mijatovic, adding that he believes German politicians have a duty. "We are called on to advance this debate. Especially in countries where the death penalty is not only reserved for the most serious crimes but also used for many other crimes. Such as in Iran: 'crimes against God' — that is very, very questionable."

Death for dealing drugs violates 'human rights'

According to the Amnesty report, well over a third of all identified executions were carried out as punishments for drug trafficking. "The fact that some countries include and use the death penalty as a customary part of their criminal law violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law," said Alt.

That is because these laws expressly forbid the death penalty for offenses that do not meet the threshold of being the "most serious crimes," for example premeditated murder. Alt is furthermore convinced that executing criminals does not have a deterrent effect. "It does not lead to fewer murders, nor does it lead to a reduction in drug-related crimes," she added.

In this bleak overall picture, there is, however, somewhat of a glimmer of hope: A further six countries repealed the death penalty in 2022, either fully or in part. The tide is turning especially in African countries; Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic completely abolished the death penalty. Equatorial Guinea and Zambia have removed it to the greatest possible extent without eliminating it completely, and Liberia and Ghana are already in the process of getting rid of capital punishment.

By the end of 2022, a total of 112 countries had abolished the death penalty. In December, almost two-thirds of United Nations member countries, 125 nations, voted for a moratorium on its use.

This article was originally written in German.