The number of death penalty executions has decreased for the fifth year in a row. These are the data provided by Amnesty International's annual report on death sentences and executions in 2020, released this Tuesday. At least 483 people were executed in 2020, the lowest number the NGO has recorded in the last ten years. Four countries – Iran (at least 246), Egypt (at least 107), Iraq (at least 45) and Saudi Arabia (27) – were responsible for 88% of all known executions. The report does not have the numbers for China as the country classifies data on the death penalty as state secrets. However, Amnesty believes that thousands of executions have been carried out in the Asian giant. There are also no official data on North Korea, Syria and Vietnam.
Executions registered by Amnesty International represent a 26% drop compared to 2019, and 70% from the peak of 1,634 executions reached in 2015. The decrease in the number of executions was due to a reduction in the application of the sentence in some States that still maintain the death sentence for common crimes and, to a lesser extent, in some interruptions of executions due to the COVID-19 crisis, according to the report.
However, the pandemic has not entirely prevented the application of the death penalty. Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International has stated: "As the world focused on finding ways to protect lives from COVID-19, several governments showed a disturbing determination to resort to capital punishment and execute people at all costs" . In some cases, such as China, the death penalty is one of the possible punishments for concealing symptoms of the coronavirus. According to the official Chinese newspaper, Beijing Daily, a court ruling stated that "in the most extreme cases (of this crime), the guilty could be sentenced to ten years in prison without review, life imprisonment or even death."
The number of death sentences documented by this organization worldwide (at least 1,477) also decreased by 36% compared to 2019. Amnesty International recorded decreases in 30 of the 54 countries in which it was known that death sentences had been imposed . The two most notable exceptions have been Indonesia, where death sentences registered in 2020 (117) increased by 46% compared to 2019, and Zambia, which imposed 119 death sentences in 2020, 18 more than in 2019 and the highest figure registered in sub-Saharan Africa.
For Carlos de las Heras, head of the campaign against the death penalty at Amnesty International Spain, there are some factors that explain and may help to maintain this downward trend in the application of the death penalty around the world. “Many countries,” says De las Heras, “have realized that carrying out executions on behalf of the state is not a solution to high crime rates. In many places public opinion is increasingly against this punishment. Finally, there is even an economic argument, since keeping prisoners in the corridors of death (awaiting processes and resources) causes many expenses for the States ”.
The countries that executed the most in 2020
Without taking into account China, whose estimates are obtained through human rights organizations and journalists in the country or specialized in it, but cannot be officially verified, the five countries that executed the most in 2020 have been, in this order, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Contrary to the downward trend in the application of capital punishment, Egypt has tripled the number of executions compared to 2019. According to the Amnesty International report, “at least 23 of those executed had been sentenced to death in connection with cases of political violence after manifestly unfair trials, marred by forced confessions and other serious human rights violations, such as torture and forced disappearance ”. For De las Heras, the case of Egypt can be explained by the use of the death penalty as an instrument of persecution of political opponents. The Amnesty International spokesperson affirms that this strategy is also present in other countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The report highlights that in July of last year, the government of then US President Donald Trump carried out the first federal execution in 17 years – the revision of the protocols since 2014 meant that this type of executions suffered a moratorium. This was followed by another nine in an interval of less than six months. In addition, five US states executed a total of seven people. The final balance has been 17 people executed in the country.
Abolition of the death sentence
For Agnès Callamard, however, “the general image of 2020 was positive”. “Chad abolished the death penalty, as did the US state of Colorado, and the number of reported executions continued to decline, bringing the world closer to relegating this ultimate exponent of cruel punishment to the history books. , inhuman and degrading ”, stated Callamard in the presentation of the report.
Amnesty International's Secretary General believes that with 123 states – more than ever so far – supporting the UN General Assembly's request for a moratorium on executions, the pressure is growing on those who remain on the sidelines to that they follow the example. According to the report, more than two-thirds of the world's countries have already abolished the death penalty in law or practice (144). 55 countries still maintain it.