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In New Report, Amnesty Decries Death Penalty But Says It's On The Wane

Polish activists stage a graphic protest against the use of the death penalty in Belarus in Warsaw in March 2012.
Polish activists stage a graphic protest against the use of the death penalty in Belarus in Warsaw in March 2012.
The death penalty is dying. A slow death, to be sure, according to Amnesty International, but the use of capital punishment is waning worldwide, nonetheless.

In its annual review, the New York-based human rights watchdog finds that at least 682 executions were carried out in 21 countries around the world in 2012 -- two more than in 2011 -- but that “progress towards its abolition was seen in all regions of the world.”

A big caveat, however, is that Amnesty’s totals do not include the thousands of executions carried out in China, which is secretive about its executions and which is believed to put more people to death each year than the rest of the world put together.

Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, says executions are becoming “a thing of the past”:

“The regression we saw in some countries this year was disappointing, but it does not reverse the worldwide trend against using the death penalty. … Only one in 10 countries in the world carries out executions. Their leaders should ask themselves why they are still applying a cruel and inhumane punishment that the rest of the world is leaving behind.”

The top five executing countries in the world in 2012 were China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, the latter being the only country in the Americas to practice the death penalty.

Methods of execution included hanging, beheading, firing squad, and lethal injection.

WATCH: Amnesty summarizes the findings of its new report

Amnesty says those executed were punished for a range of crimes that included nonviolent drug and economic offenses, as well as apostasy, blasphemy, and adultery -- “acts that should not be considered crimes at all.”

The report said 2012 saw the resumption of executions in India, Japan, and Pakistan and an “alarming escalation” in executions in Iraq, where 129 people were put to death, almost twice as many as in 2011 (68). Iran acknowledged 314 executions, but Amnesty says the real number is likely much higher.

Belarus continued to be the only country in Europe and Central Asia to carry out executions, with at least three instances reported in 2012.

Afghanistan is also singled out for the use of the death penalty in cases where "confessions" were extracted through the use of torture. Fourteen people were put to death in Afghanistan in 2012.

With these sobering statistics in mind, why does Amnesty maintain that the use of the death penalty is on the wane?

It notes that while 1,722 new death sentences were imposed in 58 countries around the world in 2012, that's down when compared with 2011, when 1,923 death sentences were imposed in 63 countries.

And while 21 countries practiced the death penalty in 2012, 28 countries used the death penalty a decade earlier, in 2003. It also notes that Latvia became the 97th country to abolish the death penalty (compared with 80 nations a decade before), while Connecticut became the 17th U.S. state to eliminate capital punishment. Benin and Mongolia ratified a UN treaty aimed at abolishing the death penalty, while a majority of states supported a UN resolution calling for a moratorium on executions. Amnesty says that 140 nations have done away with the death penalty in law or in practice.

In its report, Amnesty cites a major U.S. study that finds that the deterrence argument should not be used to justify capital punishment. As Shetty says:
“Governments still executing have run out of arguments to justify themselves. There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the death penalty works as a special deterrent against crimes. The real reason for the death penalty’s use can often be found elsewhere. In 2012, we were once again very concerned to see countries executing for what appeared to be political purposes – either as a populist measure or as an outright tool of repression.”

Amnesty opposes the death penalty in all cases, saying it “violates the right to life and is the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment.”

The full Amnesty report can be found here.

-- Grant Podelco