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Doing Away with the Death Penalty

Amnesty International Says Executions Globally Have Fallen, Despite Record Rise in Death Sentences

Last year saw a record number of death sentences, according to Amnesty International’s annual report on the issue, released today.

That’s dispiriting news for opponents of the death penalty – a uniquely cruel and irreversible punishment. But the picture emerging from the annual roundup isn’t entirely bleak.

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For example, there were fewer reported executions worldwide, and fewer countries carried out executions, compared to 2015.

Executions in Iran fell by more than 40 percent compared to 2015 – especially significant because Iran accounted for more than half of all known executions last year. Pakistan, another country that carries out death sentences in large numbers, saw a 73 percent fall in executions last year.

In the United States, the number of executions is at its lowest in 25 years, and fewer death sentences were imposed than in any year since 1973. That’s due in part to court decisions throwing out capital sentencing laws in Florida and Delaware. The refusal by European pharmaceutical companies to supply US states with the drugs used for lethal injections also contributed to the sharp decline.

The use of the death penalty for crimes committed by children, prohibited by international law, fell for the second year running. Iran was the only country known to execute or impose death sentences for crimes committed by individuals under age 18. It executed at least two juvenile offenders – and possibly seven or more – in 2016, but fewer than the 14 it put to death in 2014.

Amnesty International has always cautioned that its figures, compiled on the best available information, may not reflect the real total.  

Some countries, including Thailand, were more forthcoming with data than in previous years, Amnesty International said.

On the other hand, Belarus, China, and Vietnam treat death penalty data as state secrets, and armed conflict or authoritarian rule means there’s little or no information from countries like Laos, North Korea, Syria, and Yemen.

These gaps are significant. China is likely the world leader in death sentences and executions, a dubious title it has held for years. New data shows that more than 400 death-row inmates in Vietnam were given lethal injection between 2013 and 2016. And Syria secretly executed thousands of prisoners from 2011 through at least 2015, Amnesty International recently reported.

Overall, however, there’s enough good news in today’s report to confirm Amnesty International’s conclusion that there’s a continuing global trend toward abolition.

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