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World death penalty figures down but secrecy surrounds China execution figures

Amnesty International has today (15 April) called for secrecy surrounding the use of the death penalty around the world to be lifted as it published new figures showing that over 1,250 people were executed last year.

The call came as the human rights organisation published its global report on the death penalty for 2007, showing that a minimum of 1,252 people were executed in 24 countries last year (full list available), with at least 3,347 people sentenced to death in over 50 countries. Up to 27,500 people are now estimated to be on death row across the world.

The call was backed by Edinburgh man Kenny Richey, 43, who spent almost half his life on death row in Ohio before being released in January. With the publication of Amnesty’s death penalty report, Mr Richey said:

“These numbers are really chilling, and having actually been on death row I can guarantee that there’s a human tragedy behind every one of these statistics. In my case shoddy justice was to blame for my having to endure the living hell of two decades staring death in the face.

“Looking back I am incredibly grateful to the campaigners in Scotland and elsewhere who managed to get me off death row - the important thing now is to press for abolition of the death penalty in every country in the world.”

Compared with last year, execution figures show a drop (down from 1,591) but death penalty information is veiled in secrecy in several countries, notably in China, where execution figures are themselves a state secret. As with every year since Amnesty began recording global death penalty figures 25 years ago, minimum figures still show that China executed more than any other country last year (at least 470), but the organisation warned that the real execution figure for China is likely to be several thousand.

Meanwhile, in comparison to 2006, last year saw large rises in the number of executions in Iran (at least 317 people, up from 177), in Saudi Arabia (at least 143, up from 39), and in Pakistan (at least 135, up from 82). Just five countries - China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA - carried out the overwhelming majority (88%) of known executions in the world last year, though the hidden extent of executions in China may have meant that China alone was responsible for the bulk of them.

Amnesty International Programme Director, Scotland John Watson said:

“Yet again China has executed more people than any country in the world and even now, in Olympics year, China is secretly executing people after unfair trials and alleged torture.

“According to reliable estimates, on average China secretly executes around 22 prisoners every day - that’s 374 people during the Olympic Games.

“As the world’s biggest executioner, China gets the ‘gold medal’ for global executions. Everyone involved in this year’s Olympics, especially the International Olympics Committee, should be pressing China to reveal the extent of its use of the death penalty, to reduce the 60-plus crimes for which it can be imposed and to move toward abolition.”

While the Chinese authorities have recently claimed (without providing statistical evidence) a 15% drop in execution numbers, Amnesty is concerned that the extremely wide scope of the death penalty (already applying to some 68 crimes, including stealing VAT receipts) is becoming even wider. Last year it was announced that capital punishment could be applied to those who damage electric power facilities or people who sell or make counterfeit medicine.

Against a general trend of declining death penalty use internationally, Amnesty International is also seriously concerned at sharp rises in executions in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Iran’s minimum of 317 executions in 2007 included the stoning to death of a man for adultery, and the execution of three people who were just teenagers (aged between 13 and 16) at the time of their arrests. In Saudi Arabia, where at least 143 people were executed, those killed included a child offender aged 15 or 16 at the time of his detention, and an Egyptian man who was beheaded for “sorcery” and adultery, one of at least 76 foreigners executed in the kingdom last year. Saudi Arabia also had the highest per capita rate of execution in the world.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International’s death penalty review welcomed the wider trend toward global abolition. Two-thirds of the world’s countries (135) have now either officially abolished capital punishment or have refrained from using it for at least 10 years. Last year three more countries (Albania, Rwanda and the Cook Islands) abolished the death penalty, while in the USA New Jersey became the first US state to legally abolish capital punishment since it was reintroduced in the US in 1972.

Executions in the USA, usually one of the world’s biggest users of the death penalty, dropped to 42 in 2007, the lowest since 1994. Challenges to lethal injection executions - on the grounds that these can trap prisoners in a “chemical straitjacket” within which they feel pain but are paralysed and unable to cry out - have led to an unofficial US “moratorium” on executions. No-one has been executed in the US in the last six months.

In May last year Curtis Edward McCarty, who spent 21 years on Oklahoma's death row, was released after original trial evidence against him was ruled unreliable, while in South Korea eight people were posthumously acquitted of treason 32 years after being hanged for supposedly aiming to overthrow the government.

Last year saw the United Nations voted through by a large majority its first ever resolution in favour of a global moratorium on executions. This had the backing of more than 100 UN member states.

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