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Death penalty in 2020: executions down a quarter - new report

Last year, the Trump administration resumed federal executions and put ten people to death in under six months © AFP via Getty Images

Authoritative overview records 483 executions in 18 countries - down 26% in total

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq executed fewer people, but ‘chilling’ spike in Egypt

At least 28,567 people on death row by end of 2020

‘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’ - Agnès Callamard

The number of executions recorded by Amnesty International during 2020 fell by a quarter compared to the previous year - one of the findings of the organisation’s authoritative annual overview of capital punishment across the world, published today.

Amnesty’s 63-page report - Death Sentences and Executions 2020 - records 483 executions in 18 countries during 2020. This figure - though still representing a shocking loss of life, with many executed after grossly unfair trials - represents a decrease of 26% compared to 2019’s 657 executions, and a fall of 70% from a peak of 1,634 executions in 2015.

Most strikingly, the number of executions recorded in Saudi Arabia dropped by 85% - from 184 in 2019, to 27 in 2020. Similarly, executions more than halved in Iraq, from 100 in 2019 to 45 in 2020. No executions were recorded in Bahrain, Belarus, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore or Sudan - all countries which executed prisoners in 2019.

Amnesty’s report shows that last year’s fall in executions was due to a reduction in executions in some “retentionist” countries which habitually use capital punishment and, to a lesser extent, due to halts in executions because of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Amnesty cautioned that its figures were only minimum known ones - as several countries either conceal their death penalty data or provide only limited information.

The Chinese authorities consider information on the country’s executions and death sentences a state secret, preventing independent scrutiny, so Amnesty’s figures do not include data from China. China is believed to execute thousands of people each year, meaning that last year it will have been - once again - the world’s most prolific user of capital punishment.

Second to China was Iran (with at least 246 executions), then Egypt (at least 107), Iraq (at least 45) and Saudi Arabia (27). Between them, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia accounted for the vast majority (88%) of all known executions during 2020. Although recorded executions in Iran were lower than in earlier years (part of a recent downward trend), Iran increasingly used the death penalty as a weapon of political repression against dissidents, protesters and members of ethnic minority groups.

Overall, Amnesty’s report recorded executions in the following countries: China: believed to be thousands; Iran: at least 246; Egypt: at least 107; Iraq: at least 45; Saudi Arabia: at least 27; USA: 17; Somalia: at least 11; Yemen: at least five; India: four; Oman: four; Botswana: three; South Sudan: at least two; Sudan: at least two; Bangladesh: two; Qatar: one; Taiwan: one; North Korea: unknown number; Syria: unknown number; Vietnam: unknown number.

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, said:

“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.

“The death penalty is an abhorrent punishment and pursuing executions in the middle of a pandemic further highlights its inherent cruelty.

“Fighting against an execution is hard at the best of times, but 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. The use of the death penalty under these conditions is a particularly egregious assault on human rights.

“Despite the continued pursuit of the death penalty by some governments, the overall picture in 2020 was positive.

“We urge leaders in all countries that have not yet repealed this punishment to make 2021 the year that they end state-sanctioned killings for good. We will continue to campaign until the death penalty is abolished everywhere, once and for all.”

Chilling surge in Egypt

Though the overall global trend was downward, some countries increased the number of executions they carried out - showing a chilling disregard for human life at a time when the world’s attention was largely focused on protecting people from a deadly virus.

Most notably, Egypt tripled its yearly execution figure compared to the previous year, becoming the world’s third most frequent executioner in 2020. At least 23 of those put to death were condemned in cases relating to political violence after grossly unfair trials which saw forced “confessions” and other serious human rights violations, including torture and enforced disappearances. A large spike in executions occurred in October and November, when the Egyptian authorities executed at least 57 people - 53 men and four women.

In the USA, the only country in the Americas to carry out executions during 2020, the Trump administration resumed federal executions after a 17-year-long gap and put ten people to death in under six months. India, Oman, Qatar and Taiwan also resumed executions. Covid-19 restrictions had concerning implications for access to legal counsel and the right to a fair trial in several countries, including the USA, where defence lawyers said they were unable to carry out crucial investigative work or meet clients face-to-face.

Sharp decline in Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, executions declined sharply from 184 in 2019 to 27 last year - the lowest number recorded by Amnesty since 2010. The Saudi Arabia Human Rights Commission attributed the drop in part to “a moratorium on the death penalty in drug-related offences”, though no moratorium was officially announced in 2020. The reduction may also have been due to disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and a desire to avoid international criticism overshadowing Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G20 and its hosting of the G20 summit. For the five months prior to the summit, no executions were carried out in Saudi Arabia. However, executions resumed soon after the country’s G20 presidency ended on 30 November. 

Death sentences

The number of death sentences known to have been imposed worldwide (at least 1,477) was also down by 36% compared to 2019. Amnesty recorded decreases in 30 out of 54 countries where death sentences were known to have been imposed. These appeared to be linked in several cases to delays and deferrals in judicial proceedings put in place in response to the pandemic. However, Nigeria and Singapore sentenced people to death via Zoom due to Covid-19 related restrictions.

Non-lethal offences

Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region continued to violate international law and standards which prohibit the use of the death penalty for crimes that do not involve intentional killing. The death penalty was handed down for drug offences in China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam; for corruption in China and Vietnam; and for blasphemy in Pakistan. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, death sentences were imposed by courts established through special legislation and which usually follow different procedures from ordinary courts. In the Maldives, five people who were below 18 years of age at the time of the crime remained under sentence of death.

Abolition

During 2020, Chad and the US state of Colorado abolished the death penalty, while Kazakhstan committed to abolition under international law and Barbados concluded reforms to repeal the mandatory death penalty. As of April 2021, 108 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and 144 countries have abolished it in law or practice - a trend that Amnesty strongly believes should continue.

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Death Sentences and Executions 2020