WASHINGTON -- Amnesty International says a marked rise in executions in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq last year was enough to fuel an overall global increase in the use of the death penalty last year.
In a new report on capital punishment around the world, the rights NGO says the situation in the Middle East is particularly striking in that it runs counter to the trend of more countries abandoning the practice.
"There is one countertrend: There are some hard-line, retentionist countries which actually have increased executions," says Jan Wetzel, an adviser to Amnesty International on the death penalty. "This is a very small number within the larger number of pro- death penalty states, which shows that even in that group, they are very isolated -- but they do account for a large number of executions."
Only 20 countries carried out executions in 2011, underlining a steady decrease over the last decade.
However, Amnesty International says there were 676 attested cases of capital punishment last year, representing an increase of nearly 30 percent compared to 2010.
More than half of the global total came from Iran, where the number of executed prisoners jumped to 360.
Tehran imposed the death penalty last year for a broad range of crimes ranging from sodomy to drug offenses to apostasy from Islam, and amid reports by activists of its use to persecute political opponents.
In a number of cases, individuals were executed who were under 18 years old when the offense was committed.
The number of public executions in Iran last year is also said to have nearly quadrupled compared to 2010.
The number of attested executions in the Islamic republic is likely just a fraction of the true figure, Wetzel says.
"These are just the number that either were officially acknowledged by the Iranian authorities or that we could confirm otherwise," Wetzel says. "There is a fairly large -- what I would call a 'dark number' -- of unacknowledged, maybe even secret, executions, which could take the overall number of executions easily to over 600. Iran is most likely the largest executioner in the world after China."
In China, figures on the death penalty are a state secret, but Amnesty International estimates that "thousands" were executed by Beijing in 2011. These deaths were not included in the report's total.
Iran's regional neighbors also carried out a large number of executions last year, with Saudi Arabia executing at least 82 people and Iraq executing at least 68.
But more alarming, says Wetzel, is what has already happened in Iraq this year.
"In the three months of 2012 so far -- January, February, March -- we have already recorded 69 executions in Iraq," Wetzel says. "So in the first quarter of 2012, Iraq has executed more than in all of 2011 together. This is, from our point of view, of course, a very alarming rate."
The rapid increase, he says, may be in part attributable to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country at the end of 2011, giving Baghdad "a bit more of a free hand."
Another country highlighted by Amnesty International is Belarus, the only nation in Europe and the only former Soviet state to have carried out executions last year.
"The executions are not comparable to, let's say, Iran or China, because Belarus usually executes about two people a year," Wetzel says. "However, the conditions in Belarus are specifically atrocious -- especially, if I may say so, for a European country."
Those troubling conditions, the NGO says, were also present in the case of Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzslau Kavalyou, who were executed earlier this month in connection with the bombing of a Minsk metro station in April 2011.
The report says the men were convicted in a "flawed trial that fell short of international standards and left no recourse for appeal, other than an appeal to President [Alyaksandr Lukashenka] for clemency, in violation of international law."
The case was condemned by the European Union.
On other countries, the report noted that the United States remains the only country in the Group of Eight group of leading economies to execute prisoners, although the rate is declining.
It also expressed concern at Afghanistan's resumption of executions after a two-year period without capital punishment.