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Alarming rise in death sentences as governments resorted to capital punishment to combat crime and terrorism
Narendra Ch | 01 Apr 2015

An alarming number of countries used the death penalty to tackle real or perceived threats to state security linked to terrorism, crime or internal instability in 2014, Amnesty International found in its annual review of the death penalty worldwide.

The number of death sentences recorded in 2014 jumped by almost 500 compared to 2013, mainly because of sharp spikes in Egypt and Nigeria, including mass sentencing in both countries in the context of internal conflict and political instability.

"Governments using the death penalty to tackle crime are deluding themselves. There is no evidence that shows the threat of execution is more of a deterrent to crime than any other punishment," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's Secretary General.

"The dark trend of governments using the death penalty in a futile attempt to tackle real or imaginary threats to state security and public safety was stark last year. It is shameful that so many states around the world are essentially playing with people's lives – putting people to death for 'terrorism' or to quell internal instability on the ill-conceived premise of deterrence."

But there was also good news to be found in 2014 - fewer executions were recorded compared to the year before and several countries took positive steps towards abolition of the death penalty.

Top executioners

China again carried out more executions than the rest of the world put together. Amnesty International believes thousands are executed and sentenced to death there every year, but with numbers kept a state secret the true figure is impossible to determine.

The other countries making up the world's top five executioners in 2014 were Iran (289 officially announced and at least 454 more that were not acknowledged by the authorities), Saudi Arabia (at least 90), Iraq (at least 61) and the USA (35).

Excluding China, at least 607 executions were known to have been carried out in 2014, compared to 778 in 2013, a drop of more than 20 per cent.

Executions were recorded in 22 countries in 2014, the same number as the year before. This is a significant decrease from 20 years ago in 1995, when Amnesty International recorded executions in 42 countries, highlighting the clear global trend of states moving away from the death penalty.

"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.

State security

The disturbing trend of states using the death penalty to combat threats against state security was visible around the world, with China, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq all executing people accused of "terrorism".

Pakistan resumed executions in the wake of the horrific Taliban attack on a Peshawar school. Seven people were executed in December, and the government has said it will put hundreds more convicted on "terrorism"-related charges to death. Executions continued at a high rate in 2015.

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.

"In a year when abhorrent summary executions by armed groups were branded on the global consciousness like never before, it is appalling that governments are themselves resorting to more executions in a knee-jerk reaction to combat terrorism and crime," said Salil Shetty.

In countries including North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, governments continued to use the death penalty as a tool to suppress political dissent.

Other states made use of executions in similarly flawed attempts to tackle crimes rates. Jordan ended an eight-year moratorium in December, putting eleven murder convicts to death, with the government saying it was a move to end a surge in violent crime. In Indonesia, the government announced plans to execute mainly drug traffickers to tackle a public safety "national emergency" – promises it made good on in 2015.

Spike in death sentences

There was a dramatic rise in the number of death sentences recorded in 2014 compared to the previous year – at least 2,466 compared to 1,925 - a jump of more than a quarter. This was largely due to developments in Nigeria and Egypt, where hundreds of people were sentenced to death.

In Nigeria, 659 death sentences were recorded in 2014, a jump of more than 500 compared with the 2013 figure of 141. Military courts handed down mass death sentences against some 70 soldiers during the year in separate trials. They were convicted of mutiny in the context of the armed conflict with Boko Haram.

In Egypt, courts handed down at least 509 death sentences during 2014, 400 more than recorded during the previous year. This included mass death sentences against 37 people in April and 183 people in June following unfair mass trials.

Methods and crimes

Methods of executions in 2014 included beheading, hanging, lethal injection and shooting. Public executions were carried out in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

People faced the death penalty for a range of non-lethal crimes including robbery, drug-related crimes and economic offences. People were even sentenced to death for acts such as "adultery", "blasphemy" or "sorcery", which should not be considered crimes at all. Many countries used vaguely worded political "crimes" to put real or perceived dissidents to death.