The United States was the world’s fifth most prolific executioner and only western democracy to put a prisoner to death last year, new figures have revealed. Forty three convicts died for their crimes in America in 2011, ranking the world’s richest country fifth on the global execution league table.
The figures, released by Amnesty International, came as the rights group announced that 18,750 people are currently languishing on death row around the world.
Capital punishment has become a polemical issue in the United States in recent years.
White House-race flop Rick Perry, who has signed the death warrants of 234 convicts in 10 years as Texas governor, was cheered at a Republican debate when he called it the ‘ultimate justice’.
Texas accounted for 30 per cent of all executions in America with 13 people put to death in 2011.
The most recent was George Rivas, though he is not included in the figures as he was put to death on February 29 this year.
The 41-year-old, leader of the notorious ‘Texas Seven’, was killed by lethal injection for gunning down police officer Aubrey Hawkins during a violent raid on a sports store on Christmas eve 2010.
But there are signs that America is edging away from the death penalty.
Last year, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the practice, and a moratorium was announced in Oregon.
While Amnesty said Maryland and Connecticut are close to abolition, 36 states still retain the death penalty.
Globally, there were more executions last year than in 2010.
A surge in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen is the cause of the rise, Amnesty International said.
‘Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said: ‘We do not believe that governments should be in the business of executing citizens.
‘That’s an inappropriate role for the government to play, regardless of the circumstances.’
Various countries subject a wide array of crimes to capital punishment.
In Iran, death can be the punishment for adultery, sodomy and religious offenses such as apostasy or ‘treason against God’.
Meanwhile, blasphemy in Pakistan, ‘sorcery’ in Saudi Arabia, trafficking in human bones in the Republic of Congo, and economic crimes in China such as selling fake drugs or tainted foods or soliciting deceptive organ transplantation carry the death penalty.
China executes thousands of people annually, many more than the rest of the world put together.
But figures are a state secret, Amnesty International said, and it has stopped compiling them from public sources because those numbers lead to under-reporting and a gross underestimate of the true total.
Amnesty International challenged Beijing to publish figures on sentencing and executions ‘to confirm their claims that various changes in law and practice have led to a significant reduction in the use of the death penalty over the last four years,’ the group said.
The wave of executions in the Middle East – a 50 per cent regional increase – pushed the global total higher for 2011, with 149 executions more worldwide than in 2010.
Iran executed at least 360 people, many of them under harsh new anti-drug laws introduced last year.
Iranian executions are usually conducted by hanging, sometimes in public from a construction crane, which Amnesty said led the Japanese construction equipment company Tadano to cut off exports of cranes to Iran last July.
Iraq executed 68 people while Saddam Hussein’s former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, awaits his execution this year.
Saudi Arabia executed at least 82; and Yemen executed at least 41.
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen accounted for 99 percent of the executions in the Middle East and North Africa, Amnesty said.
Although all the Mideast and North African nations had very different governments and political dynamics, the 50 per cent increase in executions came against the backdrop of the Arab Spring protests and upheaval.
Chaos in Libya meant that Amnesty was unable to account for any legal executions, though torture, detention and summary killings by pro-government loyalists and by opposition militias who ousted Moammar Gadhafi’s regime are widely reported.
Gadhafi himself appears to have been videotaped being shot to death by members of a crowd that apprehended him.
Amnesty recorded no executions by stoning anywhere in the world in 2011.
The rights group criticized Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia for staging public executions.
Japan, which also retains capital punishment, recorded no executions for the first time in 19 years, Amnesty reported.
India also conducted no executions for the seventh year in a row and Pakistan none for a third year, Amnesty said.
Sri Lanka also had no executions in 2011, but 362 people were on death row. Sri Lanka has sought to hire a hangman and received several applications for the job, Amnesty quoted Sri Lanka’s Treasury department as reporting.