Amnesty International says the use of the death penalty in 2020 was the lowest in at least a decade, though the "unprecedented challenges" of the COVID-19 pandemic were not enough to deter Iran and 17 other countries from carrying out executions last year.
At least 483 people were known to have been executed globally, a decrease of 26 percent compared with 2019, the London-based human rights watchdog said in its annual global review of the death penalty published on April 21.
Subscribe To RFE/RL's Watchdog Report
RFE/RL's Watchdog report is a curated digest of human rights, media freedom, and democracy developments from our vast broadcast region. It arrives in your in-box every Thursday. Subscribe here.
The figure, which showed the fifth consecutive year-on-year decline, does not include countries that classify death-penalty data as state secrets or for which limited information is available. Those countries include China, North Korea, Syria, and Vietnam.
The number of countries known to still use execution decreased by two last year to 18.
Iran (at least 246), Egypt (at least 107), Iraq (at least 45), and Saudi Arabia (27) accounted for 88 percent of all known executions.
The number of death sentences known to have been imposed around the world -- at least 1,477 -- was down by 36 percent compared to 2019.
“As the world focused on finding ways to protect lives from COVID-19, several governments showed a disturbing determination to resort to the death penalty and execute people no matter what,” said Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard.
The pandemic “meant that many people on death row were unable to access in-person legal representation, and many of those wanting to provide support had to expose themselves to considerable -- yet absolutely avoidable -- health risks,” said Callamard, who called the use of the death penalty under these conditions “a particularly egregious assault on human rights.”
China is believed to execute thousands of people each year, making it the world’s most prolific executioner, Amnesty International said in its report, titled Death Sentences And Executions 2020.
The group said recorded executions in Iran continued to be lower than previous years, but the country “increasingly used the death penalty as a weapon of political repression against dissidents, protesters, and members of ethnic minority groups, in violation of international law.”
Egypt tripled its yearly execution figure compared to 2019, while recorded executions in Saudi Arabia dropped by 85 percent and more than halved in Iraq.
The United States was the only country in the Americas to carry out executions in 2020. The administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus and put a “staggering” 10 men to death in less than six months.
India, Oman, Qatar, and Taiwan also resumed executions.
Amnesty International recorded decreases in the number of new death sentences imposed in 30 out of 54 countries where death sentences were known to have been imposed.
In Pakistan, that figure decreased from at least 632 in 2019 to at least 49 last year.
In 2020, no executions were recorded in Pakistan and five other countries that carried out executions in 2019: Belarus, Bahrain, Japan, Singapore, and Sudan.
Chad and the U.S. state of Colorado abolished the death penalty last year, while Kazakhstan committed to abolition under international law and Barbados concluded reforms to repeal the mandatory death penalty.
As of April 2021, 108 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes and 144 countries have abolished it in law or practice.
“Despite the continued pursuit of the death penalty by some governments, the overall picture in 2020 was positive,” Callamard said, noting that the continuing decrease of known executions brings the world “closer to consigning the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment to the history books.”