Amnesty International Ireland has welcomed an increasing global trend towards the eradication of the death penalty but said the positive development was not without setbacks.
Research published today shows that while there has been a decrease in the number of people put to death, executions took place in several countries that had not carried out capital punishment in some time.
Last year, 21 states around the world executed people and while that was the same number as the year before it is down from 28 countries in 2003.
The level of executions has remained constant, the human rights watchdog said in its annual report on the subject, with 682 last year, a rise of two on 2011.
It said there were killings in several countries where the death penalty had not been imposed for some time. These included India, Japan, Pakistan and Gambia. It described as “alarming” the increase in executions in Iraq.
There was a “steep decline” in the number of new death sentences, which decreased from 1,923 in 63 countries in 2011, to 1,722 sentences in 58 countries last year.
Those figures, says Amnesty, do not include the “thousands” of executions carried out in China.
“Last year a small group of countries continued to hang, behead, shoot and poison their own people,” said Noeleen Hartigan, programmes director of Amnesty International Ireland.
“The setbacks this year were disappointing but they do not reverse a long global trend towards the abolition of the death penalty.
“Only a tiny number of states still carry out executions and they are increasingly isolated.”
The US is the only western democracy to feature on the list of the top five which includes, in order of Amnesty's rankings, China, Iran (at least 314), Iraq (at least 129), Saudi Arabia (at least 79) and the US
In the Middle East, the organisation said that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen have carried out 99 per cent of all executions, with the number doubling in Iraq last year.
As is the case with China, there is a degree of uncertainty in relation to Iran. Amnesty said the cited figure is almost certainly an underestimate.
The US remains the only country to carry out executions in the Americas.
Its total of 43 mirrored that of 2011, although the number of individual states that carried out executions decreased from 13 to nine.