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Fewer Countries Are Relying On Death Penalty, But They're Executing More

When Saudi Arabia executed 47 people last week, it marked an ominous start to surpassing the number of people it put to death last year. Human rights groups believe at least 150 people were executed in the kingdom in 2015. Most were beheaded, killed by firing squad or stoned to death.

Although executions are now taking place in fewer and fewer countries, those that do execute prisoners tend to do it in a big way. Richard Clark, the founder of Capital Punishment U.K., which charts executions around the world, says there was a spike in the number of executions in a few countries last year, leading to a worldwide 70 percent rise over the number in 2014.

"Iran significantly increased the number of executions over 2014, roughly from about 480 to 750," he says. "Drug offenders account for the bulk of it."

Other human rights organizations say the number could be as high as 1,000 people. It's hard to know for sure, because Iran is one of the countries that doesn't divulge much information about the death penalty.

Another is China, which might be the leader in executions, says Maya Foa, with Reprieve, a human rights organization based in London.

"In China, executions are a state secret and so not only do they not publicly disclose where and when and how many executions take place, very often as we understand it they don't even tell the family members," she says. "So it's very, very hard to get accurate figures. We do know the numbers are in the thousands very often."

Executions in Pakistan are also on the rise. The country lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in December 2014, after a Taliban attack killed 148 people, mostly schoolchildren. Last year, it executed more than 300 people.

Saroop Ijaz, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, says the government brought back executions as a way to fight terrorism.

"And as it turns out," he says, "out of the more than 300 people that Pakistan has executed, only a very small minority are people who have been convicted of terrorism offenses."

Ijaz says there are at least 27 offenses for which someone can be put to death in Pakistan, including murder, treason and blasphemy. He says the government is marketing the death penalty as a cure for the complex security situation that Pakistan faces.

"There is this national security state narrative that the Pakistan government has constructed, which is being tough and going to war — that entire rhetoric," he says.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia says most of the 47 people it executed last week were terrorists. But Clark, with Capital Punishment U.K., says that wasn't the case last year.

"The Saudi executions were pretty normal — [for] drugs and murder or rape," he says.

For its part, the U.S. went the other way. Foa, with Reprieve, says last year, the U.S. executed 28 people, down from 35 the previous year.

"We had fewer executions in the U.S. than we've seen for the last 27 years," she says, "and that's in large part because of issues with the lethal injection and manufacturers not wanting to sell medicines for the purpose of executions."

There were a few nations that decided last year to abolish the death penalty, including Madagascar, Fiji and Suriname.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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