Global executions fall, but large numbers given death penalty for drugs

April 12, 2018 HUMAN RIGHTS

AFP photo



Amnesty International



Last year saw a small drop in the overall number of executions around the world, with 993 executions in 23 countries, down by 4% from 1,032 executions in 2016, said human rights NGO Amnesty International.

The figures, contained in a new 48-page Amnesty International report, Death Sentences and Executions in 2017, also show a 17% fall in the number of people sentenced to death during 2017, with 2,591 death sentences in 53 countries, down from a record-high of 3,117 recorded in 2016.

Overall, at least 21,919 people are known to be under sentence of death globally.

However, Amnesty warned that these figures do not include the thousands of death sentences and executions believed to have been imposed and implemented in China, where figures are a state secret.

Worryingly, Amnesty’s report also shows how large numbers of death sentences were carried out for non-violent crimes such as drug offences during 2017. Fifteen countries imposed death sentences for drug-related offences, in defiance of international law, and there were drug-related executions in four countries – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. In Iran, 40% of the more than 500 executions were for drugs offences, while similarly 40% of Saudi Arabia’s nearly 150 executions were for drugs offences. Meanwhile, Singapore hanged eight people in 2017, all for drug-related offences.

Governments also breached several other international prohibitions relating to capital punishment in 2017. In Iran, at least five people were executed for crimes committed when they were under 18, and at least 80 others are on death row. Meanwhile, people with mental or intellectual disabilities were executed or are under sentence of death in Japan, the Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore and the USA. Amnesty also recorded several cases of people facing the death penalty after “confessing” to crimes under torture or other ill-treatment in Bahrain, China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In Iran and Iraq, some of these “confessions” were broadcast live on television.

Overall, the number of executing countries (23) remained the same as in 2016, though Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE all resumed executions after a gap. In Egypt, recorded death sentences increased by around 70% compared to 2016.

Excluding China, the vast majority of executions in 2017 (84%) were carried out in just four countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.

In a positive development, Mongolia abolished the death penalty for all crimes taking the number of countries to have fully abolished capital punishment to 106. Meanwhile, after Guatemala became “abolitionist” for ordinary crimes such as murder, the number of countries to have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice stands at 142.



The figures


Amnesty’s report shows that executions took place in the following countries during 2017: China (unknown number but believed to be thousands), Iran (507+), Saudi Arabia (146), Iraq (125+), Pakistan (60+), Egypt (35+), Somalia (24), USA (23), Jordan (15), Singapore (8), Kuwait (7), Bangladesh (6), Palestine (Gaza) (6), Afghanistan (5), Malaysia (4+), Japan (4), South Sudan (4), Bahrain (3), Belarus (2+), Yemen (2+), UAE (1), North Korea (unknown) and Vietnam (unknown). Many countries do not release official information on capital punishment and several countries are thought to have executed many more than the minimum figures compiled by Amnesty (indicated by a “+” symbol).


Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said: “Strong leaders execute justice, not people.

“Despite strides towards abolishing this abhorrent punishment, there are still a few leaders who would resort to the death penalty as a ‘quick-fix’ rather than tackling problems at their roots with humane, effective and evidence-based policies.

“The draconian anti-drug measures widely used in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific have totally failed to address the issue.

“The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it. We know that by galvanising the support of people worldwide, we can stand up to this cruel punishment and end the death penalty everywhere.”



Reductions in scope and abolitions


Steps to reduce the use of the death penalty were taken in several countries last year. In Iran, overall recorded executions reduced by 11% and drug-related executions also declined as a proportion by 11%. Meanwhile, moves were made to increase the threshold of drug amounts required to impose a mandatory death penalty in Iran. In Malaysia, the anti-drug laws were amended, with the introduction of sentencing discretion in drug trafficking cases.



Progress in Sub-Saharan Africa


There was also a drop in the number of executing countries in the region, from five in 2016 to two, with only South Sudan and Somalia known to have carried out executions. Meanwhile, Gambia signed an international treaty committing the country not to carry out executions and moving to abolish the death penalty (the president established an official moratorium on executions in February this year). Meanwhile, Guinea became the 20th sub-Saharan African country to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, while Kenya abolished the mandatory death penalty for murder. Burkina Faso and Chad also took steps to repeal the punishment with new or proposed laws.

However, with reports that Botswana and Sudan resumed executions in 2018, the trend in Sub-Saharan Africa was by no means all positive.

Salil Shetty said: “The progress in sub-Saharan Africa reinforced its position as a beacon of hope for abolition. The leadership of countries in this region gives fresh hope that the abolition of the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is within reach.”



Bahrain: first executions since 2010


In 2017, Bahrain carried out three executions, the first in the country since 2010. Meanwhile, the courts imposed 15 death sentences for murder, robbery and terrorism-related acts. On 15 January, Ali Abdulshaheed al-Sankis, Sami Mirza Mshaima and Abbas Jamil Taher Mhammad al-Samea were executed by firing squad for terrorism-related acts. Their death sentences were upheld on 9 January and were almost immediately ratified by the King, despite the men’s trial failing to meet international fair trial standards. Their lawyers did not have access to all the evidence available against them, which prevented them from adequately defending their clients, and they were not allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. The court also found Abbas al-Samea and Sami Mshaima guilty following coerced “confessions” which were allowed to be admitted as evidence.



Iran: more than 200 executed for drug trafficking


Iran carried out at least 507 executions (501 men and six women), with at least five of these juvenile offenders (those under 18 at the time of the alleged crime), and 31 of the executions were carried out publicly. The executions were for murder (240); drug trafficking (205); rape (16); “enmity against god” (13); robbery (5); murder and rape (4); “spreading corruption on earth” (2); kidnapping and rape (2); kidnapping and murder (1); while 19 were for offences that could not be confirmed. In Iran, basic fair trial guarantees were absent in death penalty cases and the courts often relied on “confessions” extracted under torture to impose death sentences.



Japan: four highly secretive executions


In Japan, the authorities carried out four executions (Masakatsu Nishikawa and Koichi Sumida on 13 July, and Teruhiko Seki and Kiyoshi Matsui on 19 December) in great secrecy. No prior notification was given to the condemned prisoners, their families or their legal representatives. Teruhiko Seki was executed even though he qualified under Japanese law as a minor at the time of the crime. Meanwhile, three new death sentences were imposed in Japan during 2017, taking to 134 the number of people on death row in the country.



Regional analysis




For the 9th consecutive year, the USA remained the only country to carry out executions in the region.

The number of executions (23) and death sentences (41)  in the USA slightly increased compared to 2016, but remained within historically low trends of recent years. For the second year in a row, and the second time since 2006, the USA did not feature among the top five global executioners, with its position in the global ranking dropping from 7th to 8th.

The number of US states carrying out executions increased from five in 2016 to eight, with Arkansas, Ohio and Virginia resuming executions after a hiatus. Four states – Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri and Nebraska – as well as US federal courts, imposed death sentences in 2017, after a hiatus, bringing the number of US states imposing death sentences to 15 (2 more than in 2016). Kansas, North Carolina and Oregon, which imposed death sentences in 2016, did not do so in 2017.

Only three countries in the region imposed death sentences – Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and the USA.

Guatemala became the 142nd country to have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.





At least 93 executions in nine countries were known to have been carried out throughout the region in 2017 – down from at least 130 in 11 countries in 2016. The decrease was linked to a decline in Pakistan, where executions reduced by 31%. These figures do not include the thousands of executions that Amnesty International believed were carried out in China.

Singapore doubled its number of executions (from 4 to 8) compared to 2016. All its executions were for drug-related offences.

At least 1,037 new death sentences were imposed, a slight decrease from 2016. This number is down to a variation in figures for a number of countries, and because of information provided to Amnesty International by authorities. Figures for death sentences in India, Indonesia Pakistan and Thailand, among other countries, were lower compared to 2016.

Increases were recorded in countries including Bangladesh (from at least 245 to at least 273), Singapore (from at least 7 to 15) and Sri Lanka (from at least 79 to 218).

Eighteen countries across the region were known to have imposed death sentences, the same number as in 2016. Brunei Darussalam imposed a new death sentence after it did not impose any in 2016; Papua New Guinea did not impose any death sentences in 2017, after it did so in the previous year.

Across Asia Pacific, the death penalty was extensively used for offences that did not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes”, going against international law.



Europe and Central Asia


In Europe and Central Asia, Belarus was the only country to execute people. The country carried out at least two executions in 2017; at least four new death sentences were imposed.

One man remained under sentence of death in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan continued to observe moratoriums on executions.



Middle East and North Africa


There was a small reduction in the use of the death penalty in 2017. The number of executions recorded in the Middle East and North Africa decreased by 1%, from 856 in 2016 to 847 in 2017.

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq remained the top three executing countries, accounting for 92% of executions in the region.

Iran executed at least 507 people, accounting for 60% of all confirmed executions in the region. Saudi Arabia executed 146 people, representing 17% of all confirmed executions in the region.

At least 264 executions were carried out for drug-related offences (27% of all recorded executions in 2017).

Amnesty International confirmed that at least 619 death sentences were imposed in the region in 2017, a reduction on the 764 death sentences recorded in 2016. Egypt imposed at least 402 death sentences, the most in the region.



Sub-Saharan Africa


Positive steps were taken across Sub-Saharan Africa, with a reduction in the number of executing countries recorded.

Two countries (Somalia and South Sudan) recorded executions in 2017, compared to five countries recorded in 2016.

Twenty-eight executions were carried out, 24 in Somalia and four in South Sudan, a slight increase compared to at least 22 recorded in 2016.

Death sentences decreased, from at least 1,086 in 2016 to at least 878 in 2017.

Nigeria imposed the highest number of death sentences and had the highest number of people under death sentence in the region at the end of the year.

Guinea abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia and Kenya made important strides towards abolition of the death penalty.






Amnesty International is a non-governmental organisation focused on human rights with over 7 million members and supporters around the world. The stated objective of the organisation is “to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.”

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