PRAGUE, April 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- More than 2,000 people were executed in 22 countries last year, and another 20,000 were sentenced to death, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International says. Figures in the group's annual report on the death penalty, issued on April 20, show that China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States are the countries that carried out the most executions in 2005. The report says that the total number of executions was down on the previous year. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke with Piers Bannister, who helped compile the report for Amnesty International.
RFE/RL: Your report shows that the number of executions fell significantly over the past year, from about 3,700 in 2004 to 2,148 cases. Why did the number of executions fall in 2005? Was this because a growing number of countries have outlawed the death penalty?
Piers Bannister: First of all, I would urge your listeners to treat these figures with some caution. Lots of countries around the world use the death penalty in very secretive ways. This is Amnesty International trying to tell you what the picture is, but with that caution... But I think the reason for the fall is very clear. Over the past 20 years, there has been an increasingly large and strong global trend away from the use of the death penalty. That's best illustrated by the figures of countries that have carried out executions. In 1985, 45 countries killed their citizens by state killing. But by 2005 that figure had dropped to 22. We are really starting to see isolated countries who are using the death penalty. The rest of the world is turning its back on state killing.
RFE/RL: Which are the countries that abolished the death penalty most recently?
Bannister: The most recent are Liberia and Mexico. [They] abolished the death penalty last year. But this year we are very hopeful for a number of countries that could introduce legislation that may abolish the death penalty. South Korea and Mali are also looking at ways to get rid of the death penalty.
RFE/RL: But as you mentioned in the report, despite the trend toward the abolition of the death penalty, some 20,000 people are still on death row worldwide.
Bannister: Yes and of course that's of great concern to Amnesty International. We oppose every execution regardless of where it happens, when it happens, or for what reason it happens. So, for instance, we will be opposing the execution of Saddam Hussein [if] he ][is] sentenced to death, even though he is one of the gross violators of human rights in the 20th century. It doesn't matter to us what the person is guilty of; we believe human rights are universal, and everybody has them, no matter what crimes they have committed. So I think your question is right that there are some countries that are very wedded to the death penalty and they have large death rows. The United States has 3,500 people on death row, Pakistan has 10,000. So there are masses of humanity waiting to die.
RFE/RL: You mentioned the United States. Along with China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia it remains on the top of your list. These four account for 94 percent of all executions. China carried out the largest number of executions – 1,770 people were executed in China in 2005. Is this the real picture, or is the real number higher?
Bannister: In China, there are no centralized statistics for the death penalty, which is interesting. It would imply that they are somehow ashamed of it or don't want the world to know that they are having these massive executions. Many other countries -- like Vietnam, Uzbekistan -- are also very secretive about the death penalty. I think we are starting to see some movement, in that there is at least some debate about executions in China. They recently appointed the Supreme Court to oversee executions and people will be able to appeal to that court. That's an improvement and something that Amnesty International welcomes. Of course, what we would like to see as soon as possible is the end of the death penalty in China, in the United States, in Iran, in Iraq, and in every other country that carries it out.
Iran And The Execution Of Juveniles
RFE/RL: Iran was the only country last year that executed juvenile offenders. How many of these executions took place in Iran?
Bannister: We believe that Iran executed eight people for crimes committed when they were under 18 years of age; that means they were juvenile or child offenders. This is a clear violation of international laws. And Iran is currently the only country that is executing people for crimes they committed when they were under 18. The United States last year banned this practice following a Supreme Court decision. So Iran is very isolated on this. We hope that very quickly the Iranians will realize this and cease this appalling practice.
RFE/RL: You mentioned that Uzbekistan is secretive about executions. Uzbekistan and Belarus are the only countries in Central Asia and Europe that still execute people. How many people were executed in those two countries last year?
Bannister: Only one person was executed in each of those countries. Uzbekistan has said that in 2008 it will declare a moratorium on executions. That's very much welcomed, but we are not quite sure why they are waiting two years. We would ask them to bring that forward and declare a moratorium now. It's also worth noticing that in Uzbekistan the death penalty is very secretively used. Often the prisoner who is about to be executed isn't even told. One day the guards arrive, take him from his cell, and then he's shot. So there is no chance to say goodbye to his family, no chance to discuss with his lawyers if there is any chance for more legal appeal. That is an appalling practice in itself.