by Duncan Campell, The Guardian
The world is moving closer to the final abolition of the death penalty, according to the latest figures published to coincide with World Day against the Death Penalty today.
Five nations were responsible for almost all the state executions carried out in the past year. A total of 137 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, while 60 countries retain its use, usually for people convicted of murder.
There were at least 1,252 known executions in 24 countries during 2007. Of all the executions in 2007, 88% took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US.
By the end of 2007, 91 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes and three more (Albania, the Cook Islands and Rwanda) have since joined them, according to Reprieve, which represents death row prisoners around the world.
"The reality is that despite the progress that has been made over the last 18 months, there are still thousands of people being executed every year around the world," said Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve.
"I have witnessed the barbarity of this sentence in person, having been present at the execution of four of my clients and can say that one execution is too many. We cannot rest until capital punishment becomes little more than an embarrassing chapter in our history."
In Europe, only Belarus retains capital punishment. Countries with the death penalty cannot join the EU.
The US is the only country in the Americas to have carried out any executions since 2003. Its 53 executions in 2006 represented the lowest annual total for a decade, and death sentences continue to drop from a peak in the mid-1990s.
"Asia leads the way globally as the continent that carries out the most executions," said the Amnesty International UK director, Kate Allen.
"The number of executions carried out by China last year makes them the world's number one executioner. This year we have seen a noticeable increase in the use of the death penalty in Japan. Executions in that country are typically shrouded in secrecy. And in Pakistan there are approximately 7,500 people, including children, on death row … We call on Asia's state leaders to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolish the death penalty."
In some areas with a long tradition of executions, such as central Asia, there is a clear move towards abolition. Recently, Kyrgyzstan abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes, Kazakhstan has had a moratorium on executions since 2003 and Tajikistan has had moratoriums on executions and death sentences since 2004.
In Africa, only six countries carried out executions in 2006. Last year the high court in Malawi declared the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional and Rwanda abolished it. Burundi, Gabon and Mali are taking steps towards abolition.
In seven countries the death penalty is applied for consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex: Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and parts of Nigeria.
Iran retains the death penalty for a large number of offences, among them "cursing the Prophet," certain drug offences, murder, adultery, incest, rape, drinking alcohol and sodomy. Last year Iran executed at least 317 people, including eight juvenile offenders.
In 2007, Saudi Arabia executed at least 143 people, including children and three women. This year's has already reached 58.
Pakistan retains the death penalty for 26 offences including murder, blasphemy, arms trading, drug trafficking, armed robbery, stripping a woman of her clothes in public, extramarital sex and rape. Yemen retains it for a variety of offences, among them endangering transport and communications, apostasy, robbery, prostitution and adultery.
Reports of executions in 2007:
Saudi Arabia: 143+