Amnesty International says the number of death sentences issued worldwide increased sharply during 2014 as governments used capital punishment in a "flawed attempt" to fight crime, combat terrorism, and quash internal instability.
In a report released on April 1, the London-based rights group said at least 2,466 death sentences were recorded during 2014 in a total of 55 countries.
That is about a 25 percent increase over the 1,925 the organization recorded in 2013 in 57 countries.
But Amnesty said in the report, titled Death Penalty 2014, that the number of executions carried out dropped by nearly 22 percent.
The nongovernmental organization said Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq carried out 90 percent of all recorded executions in the region spanning the Middle East and North Africa.
It said Belarus -- the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union that has not abolished or imposed a moratorium on capital punishment -- executed at least three people in 2014.
Those executions were marked by secrecy, and family members and lawyers were informed only after they were carried out, the report said.
It also said many death sentences were issued after judicial processes that did not meet international fair-trial standards.
Iran ranked second, after China, in the number of executions carried out during 2014 with 289 officially announced executions and at least 454 more that the rights groups said were not acknowledged by the authorities.
"We believe that the Iranian authorities carry out executions in secret," Oluwatosin Popoola, Amnesty International's advocate/adviser on the death penalty for the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, told RFE/RL.
"[Iranian authorities] don't acknowledge all of the executions that they carry out but reliable sources…lawyers, NGOs working in the country, do get information on executions that have been carried out but have not been officially announced," he said.
'A Political Tool'
Chiara Sangiorgio, the group's advocate and adviser on the death penalty in the Americas and Asia-Pacific, told RFE/RL that "China remained the top executioner [in the world] and continued [as in previous years] to execute more people than the rest of the world combined."
She said China "continues to use" the death penalty "as a political tool against political dissent and against unrest in Xinjiang in the northwestern part of China."
With at least 61 executions, Iraq was among the world's top five executioners, which also include Saudi Arabia and the United States with at least 90 and 35 executions, respectively.
Pakistan lifted a moratorium on executions in the wake of a Taliban attack on a Peshawar school that killed 153 people -- most of them school children -- in December.
"As of today, more than 60 people have already been executed [in Pakistan] since December, and we are alarmed that thousands are potentially at risk of further execution," Sangiorgio told RFE/RL.
Amnesty International said seven people were executed in December and the Pakistani government said it will put hundreds more convicted on terrorism-related charges to death.
Russia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan continued to observe their formal moratoriums on the death penalty.
At least three people were put to death in Belarus in 2014, the rights group said. The executions were marked by secrecy, and family members and lawyers were informed only after they were carried out, the report said.
The report said the increase in death penalties was mainly due to developments in Egypt, where there were at least 509 recorded cases of people receiving the ultimate penalty in 2014 -- a sharp rise from the previous year when some 109 death sentences were recorded.
Also in Nigeria, the recorded number of death sentences rose from at least 141 in 2013 to some 659 in 2014.
Amnesty said seven countries that carried out execution in 2013 did not do so in 2014. These countries are Bangladesh, Botswana, Indonesia, India, Kuwait, Nigeria, and South Sudan.
However, seven others resumed executions after at least a one-year hiatus: Belarus, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Jordan, Pakistan, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.
The 2014 report documented the rights watchdog's finding in 55 countries that sentenced people to death.
In some cases, "confessions" were obtained through torture or other mistreatment, the report said.
It said people continued to be sentenced to death and executed for offenses that don't meet the "most serious crimes" threshold of "intentional killing" as defined in international standards.
These offenses included drug-related crimes in Iran, "blasphemy" in Pakistan, and rape in Afghanistan, among others.