China, Iran Head Death Penalty’s Last Holdouts

Use of the death penalty is on the decline globally, with the majority of sentences handed down and carried out by a handful of hardcore holdout countries, Amnesty International said in a report (.pdf) released Tuesday.

According to the report, “Death Sentences and Executions 2009,” countries that carried out the most sentences include China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States. In some places like China and Sudan, executions are applied extensively as a means to intimidate government opponents.

China remains the world leader in carrying out death penalty sentences, executing more individuals that the rest of the world combined, AI said. The group also urged China to immediately cease treating sentencing information as a state secret. AI did not provide figures for Chinese executions in 2009 due its belief that estimates based on publicly available information do not reflect the true extent of its use.

“The death penalty is cruel and degrading, and an affront to human dignity. The Chinese authorities claim that fewer executions are taking place. If this is true, why won’t they tell the world how many people the state put to death?” AI’s interim Secretary-General Claudio Cordone said in a press release.

There were no executions carried out in Europe in 2009, a first for the continent since AI began tracking executions in 1980. Several other countries — including Burundi, Pakistan and Togo — either abolished or reduced executions.

In countries where the death penalty is still used, discussion of eliminating the practice is often heavily colored by political, religious and social concerns. Earlier this month, public outcry forced Taiwan’s justice minister to resign after she vowed not to order any executions of death row inmates, according to Agence France Press. The Taiwanese cabinet subsequently issued a statement clarifying that it had no plans to abolish the death penalty.

AI’s report came out just ahead of news from India that a Haryana court sentenced five men to death over the 2007 kidnapping and honor killing of a young married couple. The couple married without permission, and the convicted were all members of her extended family. Indian courts rarely issue the death penalty, and few of the sentences are actually carried out, according to the BBC.

The Indian case presents a potential dilemma for rights advocates. Broad swathes of the international human rights community are publicly against the death penalty as a core rights violation. At the same time, one of the biggest issues associated with honor killings is a consistent lack of judicial punishment for perpetrators. This impunity, most campaigners argue, functions as de facto societal and judicial tolerance for the practice. Rights advocates may find it difficult to criticize such a rare judicial conviction, even if they disagree with the sentence.