The human rights group Amnesty International says use of the death penalty across the globe has declined but thousands of people are still being executed each year, mostly by governments in Asia and the Middle East.
In its 2010 report, Amnesty International says that, excluding China's total, it counted at least 527 executions in 2010, down from 714 known executions in 2009.
The report says China -- which maintains secrecy over its use of the death penalty -- executed "thousands" of people in 2010, more than the rest of the world combined.
At least 252 people were executed in Iran, some 60 in North Korea, 53 in Yemen, 46 in the United States, at least 27 in Saudi Arabia, and at least one in Iraq.
"We absolutely believe that it is an unmistakable trend towards abolition," the author of the report, Roseann Rife, told reporters in Hong Kong. "That is the goal, the United Nations has come out and said that that is the goal, and many, many countries are adopting it.
"I think it's just a matter of time, and increasingly the countries who haven't abolished the death penalty are going to stand out as obstructionist towards that goal."
Returns To Europe
The report also notes that the death penalty returned to Europe in 2010, when two men were executed in Belarus.
It says that while the number of executions appeared to have declined in 2010, in many countries death sentences continue to be passed for drug-related offenses, economic crimes, sexual relations between consenting adults, and blasphemy.
In addition, the number of countries that imposed the death penalty increased by four last year. At least 23 nations enforced judicial executions, up from 19 in 2009, the year in which Amnesty International recorded the lowest number since it began its monitoring process.
Amnesty International calls on China to release official figures on its use of the death penalty. While the country has reportedly reduced the number of crimes punishable by death by 13 to 55 earlier this year, Rife said it was unclear how that would affect the number of executions.
"A lot of those crimes that were cut were sort of economic crimes or white-collar crimes, if you will, that we hadn't seen, we hadn't recorded executions for those crimes recently in China," Rife said. "So we really don't know if that is going to have an impact on the use of the death sentence in China. What we've continuously been calling on and even more so in the last two years is for China to publicly release those figures."
No New Executions
There were no reported executions in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Saint Kitts, and Nevis, and the United Arab Emirates, although all had carried out executions up to 2008 or 2009.
There were, however, at least 365 death sentences handed out in Pakistan, at least 279 in Iraq, at least 100 in Afghanistan, and three in Belarus. At least 2,024 new death sentences were known to have been imposed in 67 countries over the course of the year, leaving nearly 18,000 people worldwide on death row.
Public executions were carried out in Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. In several countries -- including Belarus, Botswana, Egypt, and Japan -- neither inmates on death row, their families, nor their lawyers were informed of their impending executions. In Belarus, Botswana, and Vietnam, the bodies of executed prisoners were not returned to their families for burial.
Amnesty International's report praises many UN member states in December for their unprecedented level of support for a third resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. The resolution was adopted by 109 votes in favor, 41 against, and with 35 abstentions.
The Russian Federation and Madagascar joined as cosponsors.
"Those countries that retain the death penalty defend their position by claiming that they use it only as allowed under international law, and only for the most serious crimes and after procedures that meet international fair trial standards," the report says. "However, their actions blatantly contradict these claims."
"In most countries where support for the death penalty is still strong, capital punishment continues to be imposed after unfair trials and often based on confessions extracted through torture," it says. "In most countries the death penalty is used disproportionately against the poor, minorities, and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities."
written by Courtney Rose Brooks; with additional wire reporting