Op-ed: New 10-year low in global executions, but progress marred by spikes in a few countries

By Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Research, Advocacy and Policy

Abdulkareem al-Hawaj from Saudi Arabia was 16 when he allegedly took part in anti-government protests in the country’s Shi’a majority Eastern Province in 2012. Two years later, the teenager was arrested and charged with offences relating to his involvement in the protests.

Abdulkareem was reportedly held in solitary confinement for the first five months, as well as beaten, intimidated and threatened with the death of his family during brutal interrogations in which he was pressured to “confess”. He had no access to a lawyer during pre-trial detention and interrogations.

Abdulkareem was sentenced to death by the Specialized Criminal Court on 27 July 2016, and on 23 April 2019, he was executed along with 36 others in a shocking mass execution. His family, like the families of the other men executed that day, learned of the deaths through the news. They never received the body of their loved ones to mourn them.   

Amnesty International believes the death penalty is the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment. To take a life away whether by hanging, electrocution, beheading, shooting or lethal injection – in cold blood -- is the lowest act. Sentencing to death someone who was below the age of 18 at the time of the crime is a violation of international law.

When the death penalty is not used against critics to suppress dissent or spread fear among minority or unfavoured groups, it is often deployed to look tough on crime. Yet there is no credible evidence to suggest societies where the death penalty is practised are safer, or that executions deter crimes from being committed more than prison sentences. 

For more than 40 years, Amnesty International has called for an end to the death penalty -- in all cases and without exception. So it is encouraging to see that our latest report shows that global executions have declined for a fourth consecutive year, dipping to yet another 10-year low.

Global trend away from the death penalty

In total, 657 executions were recorded around the world in 2019, a 5% drop from 2018. The data confirms a global trend that has seen the use of the death penalty decrease year-on-year since a peak of 1,634 known executions in 2015.

The decline can be partly attributed to countries with a record of using the death penalty, executing fewer people in 2019 – such as Japan (from 15 to three), Singapore (from 13 to four) and Egypt (from at least 43 to at least 32).

No executions were carried out in Afghanistan for the first time since 2010. Hiatuses were also reported in Taiwan and Thailand. Meanwhile Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Malaysia and Gambia continued to observe official moratoriums on executions.

Although no country abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2019, momentum towards the global abolition of this horrific punishment continued to build.

In sub-Saharan Africa, several countries took steps that could lead to the abolition of the death penalty, including Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

In the Caribbean, Barbados removed the mandatory death penalty from its Constitution while in the United States, the Governor of California, the US state with biggest death row population, established an official moratorium on executions, and New Hampshire became the 21st US state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes. 

Progress hampered by small number of states

However, progress was marred by several developments including the sharp rise in executions in some countries including Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

In total, the Saudi Arabian authorities executed 184 people last year, compared to 149 in 2018.

The majority of executions were for drug-related offences and murder. However, Amnesty International also documented the increased use of the death penalty as a political weapon to crush dissent from Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shi’a Muslim minority.

In Iraq, authorities increasingly turned to the death penalty largely to punish suspected members of the armed group calling itself “Islamic State”. The number of people executed nearly doubled to 100 in 2019, compared to 52 in 2018.

Lack of transparency

Secrecy and the death penalty often go hand-in-hand.

Despite requests from Amnesty International, many countries did not provide official information on their use of the death penalty. For example, Viet Nam, one of the top five executioners in 2018, only released partial figures for 2019, while China, North Korea and Iran continued to hide the true extent of their use of the death penalty.

This only makes us more determined.

We must continue to do everything we can to put pressure on the small minority of executing countries in the world, and abolish the death penalty once and for all. Human life is sacred. It is of the highest value. We must never forget that.