July 26, 2013: Of the 40 countries worldwide that retain the death penalty, 33 are dictatorial, authoritarian or illiberal States.
Seventeen of these countries were responsible for approximately 3,909 executions, 98.5% of the world total in 2012.
China alone carried out about 3,000, about 76%, of the world total of executions; Iran put at least 580 people to death and Iraq, at least 129; Saudi Arabia, at least 84; Yemen, at least 28; North Korea, at least 20; Sudan, at least 19; Afghanistan, 14; Gambia, 9; Somalia, at least 8; Palestine (Gaza Strip), 6; South Sudan, at least 5; Belarus, at least 3; Syria, at least 1; Bangladesh, 1; Pakistan, 1; and United Arab Emirates, 1.
Many of these countries do not issue official statistics on the practice of the death penalty, therefore the number of executions may, in fact, be much higher.
This is the prevalent situation worldwide concerning the practice of the death penalty. It points to the fact that the fight against the death penalty entails, beyond the stopping of executions, a battle for transparency of information concerning capital punishment, for democracy, for respect of the rule of law and for political rights and civil liberties.
The terrible podium of the world’s top executioners is occupied by three authoritarian States in 2012: China, Iran and Iraq.
Although the death penalty remains a State secret in China, some news in recent years, including declarations from official sources, suggest that the use of the death penalty may have diminished compared to preceding years.
A major turnabout came after the introduction of a legal reform on 1 January 2007, which required that every capital sentence handed down in China by an inferior court be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). Since then, the top court has overturned “on average” 10 per cent of death sentences handed down each year in the country.
According to William A. Schabas, Professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, in 2012 “China has probably executed about 3,000 people.” “This represents a decline of more than 50% from the number only five years ago,” he wrote on his blog on 18 December 2012, after more than a decade of his participation in various conferences on capital punishment in China and many encounters with experts in the Chinese criminal justice system.
According to the Dui Hua Foundation’s estimate, “the number of executions has been sharply reduced, although in 2012 it remained high at around 3,000 per year.” The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that works on behalf of political prisoners and monitors Chinese prisons, estimated that China had carried out “about” 4,000 executions in 2011, while there were “about” 5,000 in 2010, as in 2009, still a slight decrease as compared to 2008, when the number of executions “exceeded 5,000 and may have been as high as 7,000.” According to the Foundation, run by business executive-turned-human-rights advocate John Kamm – who still maintains good relations with government officials – about 6,000 people were executed in 2007, a 25 to 30 per cent drop from 2006, in which estimates reported at least 7,500 executions.
Given that the great majority – at least 90 per cent – of these cases are death penalty review cases, as the SPC doesn’t have jurisdiction over many other cases, an approximate but realistic estimate would put the number of death sentences in 2012 – between definitive sentences and those suspended for two years – at around 8,300, a sharp decrease from about 9,400 estimated in 2011.
Considering further that, since February 2010, the Supreme People’s Court has recommended to use a policy of “justice tempered with mercy,” suggesting to the courts to “suspend the death sentence for two years for all cases that don’t require immediate execution,” it is realistic to conclude that the executions in 2012, as estimated by Professor William Schabas and the Dui Hua Foundation, were about 3,000, a significant decrease compared to the 4,000 of 2011.
On 14 March 2012, China amended again the 1979 Criminal Procedure Law, highlighting the human rights protection. A phrase calling for “respecting and protecting human rights” was added to the revised law’s first chapter on aim and basic principles. The amendment further specifies the procedures for the Supreme People’s Court to review death penalty cases in order that such cases will be handled “with sufficient care”, and “legal oversight” will be strengthened.
According to the fifth annual report of Iran Human Rights (IHR) on the death penalty in Iran, in 2012 the Islamic Republic carried out at least 580 executions, a number among the highest in more than 15 years. According to Human Rights Activists in Iran, at least 587 people were executed in 2012.
Iran Human Rights emphasizes that the actual number of executions is probably much higher than the figures included in its annual report. At least 240 additional executions were not included in the report, due to difficulties in confirming some of the details. In fact, only 85 out of the 325 estimated secret executions in Vakilabad Prison were included in the 2012 report. In 2011, on the basis of these same sources, Iran Human Rights had estimated at least 676 executions.
Since the 2009 post-election protests in Iran, the number of executions, particularly public executions, has risen dramatically. According to Iran Human Rights, in 2012 there were at least 60 public executions, a number six times higher than numbers from 2009, when at least 12 people were hanged in public places. In 2010, at least 19 people were hanged publicly. In 2011, public executions have more than tripled, with at least 65 people being executed in public. The trend has continued in 2013. Just in January and February 2013 alone, at least 20 people were hanged in public. As of 30 June, at least 37 public executions were held.
The execution of child offenders continued into 2012 and 2013, in open violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to which it is a co-signatory. A juvenile offender was executed in public in March 2012, according to Amnesty International. Another two possible minor offenders were executed 2013 (in January and February).
The use of the death penalty for purely political motives continued in 2012 and 2013. But it is probable that many of the people put to death for ordinary crimes or for “terrorism,” may well be in fact political opponents, in particular members of Iran’s ethnic minorities, including Iranian Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. Accused of being Mohareb – enemies of Allah – those arrested are often subject to rapid and severe trials that often end with a sentence of death. The punishment for Moharebeh is death or amputation of the right hand and left foot, according to the Iranian penal code. According to Iran Human Rights, at least 23 (3%) of 294 people who were executed in 2012 according to the official Iranian sources were convicted of Moharebeh (war against God).
However, the death penalty is not the only punishment dictated by the Iranian implementation of Sharia. There is also torture, amputation, flogging and other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments. These are not isolated incidents and they occur in flagrant violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Iran signed and which expressly prohibits such practices.
In 2012, Iraq executed at least 129 people, the highest number since 2005. They were a significant and worrying increase compared to the previous year when at least 68 people were executed.
Iraq has already executed at least 50 people in 2013 (as of 16 April).
Executions began in August 2005. Since then, as of 16 April 2013, at least 497 executions were carried out, most of them related to acts of terrorism.
In April 2013, there were about 1,400 people held on death row, according to Iraqi Justice Minister Hassan al-Shammari. (Hands Off Cain 2013 Report)