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World Day Against the Death Penalty: 4 countries carry out 86% of documented executions

With the World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October, it is undoubtedly the time to raise serious questions about the prevalence of the death penalty as we head into a new decade. As of 31 December 2019 there still remained 56 countries that retained the use of capital punishment. 

According to Amnesty International at least 26,604 people were known to be on death rows around the world at the end of 2019, 38% more than the previous year. The number of actual executions in 2019 amounts to 657, excluding the thousands that are believed to have taken place in China, where the scope of its use is unknown as the data is classified as a state secret.

World Day Against the Death Penalty

This year marks the 18th World Day Against the Death Penalty, and its theme campaigns for those on death row to obtain access to effective legal representation during arrest, detention, trial and post-trial, to ensure due process. But how far have the implementation of the day and its celebrations helped the elimination of the death penalty around the world? 

Some countries have taken positive steps to improving their legislation on capital punishment. In September 2020, Kazakhstan signed the Second Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, making a commitment against capital punishment. Despite its poor record as the country with the second highest execution rate, Saudi Arabia have also made some small strides by a issuing a  royal decree in April 2020, that aims for the abolition of the death penalty against juveniles. Similarly, the state of California extended the ban on capital punishment for intellectually disabled people.

While these positive changes are taking place, the fact still remains that there is still a long way to go for many states. 

Countries such as the US and the UK that had previously seen progress in outlawing capital punishment have seemed to regress in recent years. In the US, the resumption of federal executions has taken the US back a step. The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty reports that, since federal executions resumed in mid-July 2020 two additional federal executions have been carried out, bringing the total number of people executed by the federal government to five. In the UK, in addition to the current Home Secretary’s questionable personal views on the death penalty, the 2003 Extradition Act and cases such as that of the ISIS Beatles have brought the UK’s position on capital punishment back into the fore.

In 2019, there were a total of 657 executions carried out around the world, excluding China which, as the world’s most prolific executioner, refuses to issue the data. 5 countries that carried out most executions were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt. Of the 657 executions that data is available for, 86% are carried out by just four countries: Iran (at least 251), Saudi Arabia (at least 184), Iraq (at least 100), and Egypt (at least 26) though the exact numbers are likely to be higher given the frequency of underreporting and use of secret executions.


China is the country with the largest number of executions in the world. There are an estimated 2000 executions that took place in China last year and Amnesty International estimates that China imposes and carries out death sentences – via lethal injection and shooting – in the thousands every year. There are now 46 different crimes carrying the death penalty in China, a reduction from almost 70 previously.


The Iranian regime is notorious for its harsh enforcement of the death penalty with crimes as insignificant as adultery, apostasy, and recidivist consumption of alcohol all punishable by death.

Iran also has one of the highest rates of juvenile executions in the world, with at least 80 of the 5,000 individuals currently under death sentence there juveniles, according to the Cornell Death Penalty Database. 

This is all despite Iran being a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international human rights treaty that states capital punishment shall not be imposed for offenses committed by a person below 18 years of age.

Under Rouhani, the illegal detention of foreign and dual nationals has become a key strategy of the Iranian regime. Tehran is pursuing so-called hostage diplomacy, using these innocent individuals as bargaining chips in Iran’s dealings with other nations and as diplomatic leverage. One of them is Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian scientist, who is currently on death row after having been sentenced to death in October 2017 under bogus espionage charges.

Dr Djalali’s health has been deteriorating since his arrest yet despite fears that he suffers from leukemia, he was not included in the temporary furlough when Iran decided to release a number of prisoners because of Covid-19 concerns. 

Under the campaign #FreeRouhaniHostages, IOHR has advocated for Dr Djalali’s release.


Saudi Arabia

The death penalty is also widely used in Saudi Arabia where the ruler is considered to have the right to kill when necessary in subduing rebellion and has the right to inflict the death penalty as hadd – punishment under shariah law that is mandated by God. 

As of July 2019, 55 of the 134 people known to have been executed in Saudi Arabia that year were convicted of non-violent drug-related offenses according to a report conducted by Baroness Helena Kennedy.

Additionally, Saudi judges treat homosexuality as Zina (illicit sexual relations) and it is often punished with the use of the death penalty. The attitude toward same-sex relations is exemplified by the Saudi Ministry of Education’s 2007 approval of textbooks that stated: “homosexuality is one of the most disgusting sins and greatest crimes” and that the proper punishment for the intentional act of homosexual intercourse is capital punishment.


There are currently 8,022 people on death row in Iraq, according to their UN-approved human rights body, with the Iraqi regime almost doubling its use of the death penalty from at least 52 in 2018 to at least 100 in 2019. This is largely attributed to its continued use against individuals accused of being members of, or affiliated with Daesh.


The flaws of the Egyptian judicial system and its use of capital punishment have become increasingly apparent, as exemplified by the mass trials carried out in 2014 where a court sentenced 683 suspected Muslim Brotherhood members to death.

The use of the death sentence in this manner has increased exponentially in recent years with Egyptian courts recommending the death sentence for more than 100 people at once, four separate times since 2013. Amnesty International described trials of this nature as a “grotesque parody of justice” and have called the death penalty “the favourite tool for the Egyptian authorities to purge the political opposition.

Is the world heading in the right direction? 

As of 2020, a total of 56 countries retain the death penalty as a means of punishment. Five  countries – Mongolia, Guinea, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chad and Kazakhstan – have all abolished the death penalty in the last few years; a promising step in the right direction for the reduction of its use globally. 

Additionally, the number of documented executions was the lowest in 10 years with a 5% decrease from 2018 to 2019. 

These figures seem to indicate that improvements are being made with regard to the use of capital punishment, but the fact that Chinese statistics are not officially published, and many countries still maintain the use of secret executions, means we can never be sure if progress is concrete.

IOHR is also campaigning for the immediate release of four innocent journalists who have been sentenced to death by a Houthi backed court for simply doing their job of covering the war in Yemen.

Exclusive Investigation: Houthi Court Unjustly Convicts 10 Journalists of “Spying” and sentences 4 to death

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