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Global executions fall, but large numbers given death penalty for drugs - new report

23 countries carried out executions, with nearly 22,000 people now on death row

40% of executions in Iran and Saudi Arabia were for drugs offences

Some executions came after torture-extracted ‘confessions’ 

‘Strong leaders execute justice, not people’ - Salil Shetty

Last year saw a small drop in the overall number of executions around the world, with 993 executions in 23 countries, down by 4% from 1,032 executions in 2016, said Amnesty International.

The figures, contained in a new 48-page Amnesty International report, Death Sentences and Executions in 2017, also show a 17% fall in the number of people sentenced to death during 2017, with 2,591 death sentences in 53 countries, down from a record-high of 3,117 recorded in 2016. 

Overall, at least 21,919 people are known to be under sentence of death globally.

However, Amnesty warned that these figures do not include the thousands of death sentences and executions believed to have been imposed and implemented in China, where figures are a state secret.

Worryingly, Amnesty’s report also shows how large numbers of death sentences were carried out for non-violent crimes such as drug offences during 2017. Fifteen countries imposed death sentences for drug-related offences, in defiance of international law, and there were drug-related executions in four countries - China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. In Iran, 40% of the more than 500 executions were for drugs offences, while similarly 40% of Saudi Arabia’s nearly 150 executions were for drugs offences. Meanwhile, Singapore hanged eight people in 2017, all for drug-related offences.

Governments also breached several other international prohibitions relating to capital punishment in 2017. In Iran, at least five people were executed for crimes committed when they were under 18, and at least 80 others are on death row. Meanwhile, people with mental or intellectual disabilities were executed or are under sentence of death in Japan, the Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore and the USA. Amnesty also recorded several cases of people facing the death penalty after “confessing” to crimes under torture or other ill-treatment in Bahrain, China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In Iran and Iraq, some of these “confessions” were broadcast live on television.

Overall, the number of executing countries (23) remained the same as in 2016, though Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE all resumed executions after a gap. In Egypt, recorded death sentences increased by around 70% compared to 2016. 

Excluding China, the vast majority of executions in 2017 (84%) were carried out in just four countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan. 

In a positive development, Mongolia abolished the death penalty for all crimes taking the number of countries to have fully abolished capital punishment to 106. Meanwhile, after Guatemala became “abolitionist” for ordinary crimes such as murder, the number of countries to have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice stands at 142. 

The figures

Amnesty’s report shows that executions took place in the following countries during 2017: China (unknown number but believed to be thousands), Iran (507+), Saudi Arabia (146), Iraq (125+), Pakistan (60+), Egypt (35+), Somalia (24), USA (23), Jordan (15), Singapore (8), Kuwait (7), Bangladesh (6), Palestine (Gaza) (6), Afghanistan (5), Malaysia (4+), Japan (4), South Sudan (4), Bahrain (3), Belarus (2+), Yemen (2+), UAE (1), North Korea (unknown) and Vietnam (unknown). Many countries do not release official information on capital punishment and several countries are thought to have executed many more than the minimum figures compiled by Amnesty (indicated by a “+” symbol).

(See the Bahrain, Iran and Japan country case studies below).

Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“Strong leaders execute justice, not people.
“Despite strides towards abolishing this abhorrent punishment, there are still a few leaders who would resort to the death penalty as a ‘quick-fix’ rather than tackling problems at their roots with humane, effective and evidence-based policies. 

“The draconian anti-drug measures widely used in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific have totally failed to address the issue.

“The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it. We know that by galvanising the support of people worldwide, we can stand up to this cruel punishment and end the death penalty everywhere.”

Reductions in scope and abolitions

Steps to reduce the use of the death penalty were taken in several countries last year. In Iran, overall recorded executions reduced by 11% and drug-related executions also declined as a proportion by 11%. Meanwhile, moves were made to increase the threshold of drug amounts required to impose a mandatory death penalty in Iran. In Malaysia, the anti-drug laws were amended, with the introduction of sentencing discretion in drug trafficking cases. 

Progress in Sub-Saharan Africa 

In 2017, Sub-Saharan Africa made important strides in the global fight to abolish the death penalty, with a significant decrease in death sentences being imposed across the region. 

There was also a drop in the number of executing countries in the region, from five in 2016 to two, with only South Sudan and Somalia known to have carried out executions. Meanwhile, Gambia signed an international treaty committing the country not to carry out executions and moving to abolish the death penalty (the president established an official moratorium on executions in February this year). Meanwhile, Guinea became the 20th sub-Saharan African country to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, while Kenya abolished the mandatory death penalty for murder. Burkina Faso and Chad also took steps to repeal the punishment with new or proposed laws.

However, with reports that Botswana and Sudan resumed executions in 2018, the trend in Sub-Saharan Africa was by no means all positive. 

Salil Shetty said:

“The progress in sub-Saharan Africa reinforced its position as a beacon of hope for abolition. The leadership of countries in this region gives fresh hope that the abolition of the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is within reach.”

Three country case studies

Bahrain: first executions since 2010

In 2017, Bahrain carried out three executions, the first in the country since 2010. Meanwhile, the courts imposed 15 death sentences for murder, robbery and terrorism-related acts. On 15 January, Ali Abdulshaheed al-Sankis, Sami Mirza Mshaima and Abbas Jamil Taher Mhammad al-Samea were executed by firing squad for terrorism-related acts. Their death sentences were upheld on 9 January and were almost immediately ratified by the King, despite the men’s trial failing to meet international fair trial standards. Their lawyers did not have access to all the evidence available against them, which prevented them from adequately defending their clients, and they were not allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. The court also found Abbas al-Samea and Sami Mshaima guilty following coerced “confessions” which were allowed to be admitted as evidence.

Iran: more than 200 executed for drug trafficking

Iran carried out at least 507 executions (501 men and six women), with at least five of these juvenile offenders (those under 18 at the time of the alleged crime), and 31 of the executions were carried out publicly. The executions were for murder (240); drug trafficking (205); rape (16); “enmity against god” (13); robbery (5); murder and rape (4); “spreading corruption on earth” (2); kidnapping and rape (2); kidnapping and murder (1); while 19 were for offences that could not be confirmed. In Iran, basic fair trial guarantees were absent in death penalty cases and the courts often relied on “confessions” extracted under torture to impose death sentences.

Japan: four highly secretive executions

In Japan, the authorities carried out four executions (Masakatsu Nishikawa and Koichi Sumida on 13 July, and Teruhiko Seki and Kiyoshi Matsui on 19 December) in great secrecy. No prior notification was given to the condemned prisoners, their families or their legal representatives. Teruhiko Seki was executed even though he qualified under Japanese law as a minor at the time of the crime. Meanwhile, three new death sentences were imposed in Japan during 2017, taking to 134 the number of people on death row in the country.

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