London: Global use of the death penalty continues to decline even though China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, the US and Saudi Arabia still execute thousands of people each year, Amnesty International said.
China executed "thousands" of people in 2010, according to estimates by the London-based rights group, while Iran killed at least 252, North Korea at least 60, Yemen at least 53, the United States 46, and Saudi Arabia at least 27.
But globally executions are declining, with official executions -- excluding China, which keeps its figures secret -- falling from at least 714 in 2009 to at least 527 in 2010, according to Amnesty's annual report on the issue, released on Monday.
Last year also saw Mongolia declare a moratorium on the death penalty in what Amnesty said was an "important milestone" for Asia; and Gabon became the 16th African Union member country to abolish the practice.
"In spite of some setbacks, developments in 2010 brought us closer to global abolition," said Amnesty secretary general Salil Shetty.
He added: "The minority of states that continue to systematically use the death penalty were responsible for thousands of executions in 2010, defying the global anti-death penalty trend."
However, Shetty noted that a number of countries continue to use the death penalty beyond the most serious crimes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where it was frequently used for drug offences or adultery.
"While executions may be on the decline, a number of countries continue to pass death sentences for drug-related offences, economic crimes, sexual relations between consenting adults and blasphemy, violating international human rights law forbidding the use of the death penalty except for the most serious crimes," he said.
Asia and the Middle East were responsible for the most executions last year, led by China, which keeps the figures as a state secret but is believed to have killed thousands of people, including for non-violent crimes.
The Amnesty report notes China has taken steps to remove the death penalty from a number of offences in its criminal code but says the crimes involved have rarely been punished by execution in recent years.
Elsewhere in Asia, at least 82 executions were carried out last year, most of these in North Korea, but also in Singapore, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Japan and Malaysia.
In the Middle East, Iran led with 252 officially recognised executions, although Amnesty said it had received "credible reports" of more than 300 others, mostly in Vakilabad Prison, in Mashhad. Most were for drugs offences.
A significant proportion of executions or death sentences handed down last year in China, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, Libya, Malaysia, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen were also for drug-related offences.
In a setback for Amnesty's campaign for abolition, the death penalty returned to the European continent after its first ever execution-free year in 2009, when two men in Belarus were executed by shooting in March 2010.
Execution methods include beheading, electrocution, lethal injection, hanging and shooting, the last two being the most popular. Despite people being sentenced to death by stoning in Iran, no one last year died that way.
Overall, 96 countries have now abolished the death penalty for all crimes, the highest number ever, and only 23 actually carried out executions last year, although this was an increase on the 19 who carried them out in 2009.
"A world free of the death penalty is not only possible, it is inevitable," said Shetty. "The question is how long will it take?"
First Published: Monday, March 28, 2011, 23:40