Death Sentences and Executions in 2014, report summary


Every day, people are executed by the state as punishment for a variety of crimes – sometimes for acts that should not be criminalized. In some countries it can be for who you sleep with, in others it is reserved for acts of terror and murder.

Some countries execute people who were under 18 years old when the crime was committed, others use the death penalty against people who suffer mental problems. Before people die they are often imprisoned for years on “death row”. Not knowing when their time is up, or whether they will see their families one last time.

The death penalty is cruel, inhuman and degrading. Amnesty opposes the death penalty at all times – regardless of who is accused, the crime, guilt or innocence or method of execution.

We have been working to end executions since 1977, when only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Today, the number has risen to 140 – nearly two-thirds of countries around the world.

It is shameful that so many states are essentially playing with people’s lives

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International


Death sentences and executions 2007-2014

Key facts

People were executed in 2014 – 22% fewer than in 2013
People were sentenced to death – 28% more than in 2013
Half of all countries have now totally abolished the death penalty


China threw out a number of death sentences in 2014, but is this a sign of real progress for the world’s top executioner? Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao comments.

I co-founded the non-profit China Against the Death Penalty network in 2010 and have been involved in many death penalty cases. As a result, I know that acquittals are very rare in China’s flawed judicial system. So I was somewhat surprised that a number of death sentences and convictions were overturned last year.

Hugjiltu, a teenager from Inner Mongolia, was one of them. He was cleared 18 years after his wrongful execution for murder.

In Hugjiltu’s case, his family had tried for years to prove his innocence. In the case of Nian Bin, [a shopkeeper] who had been convicted of murder, it took three appeals and six years before the court ordered a retrial that ended in his high-profile acquittal last year. If this feels like a long time, the fact is the process typically takes far longer. I know of lawyers and family members who have gathered evidence and appealed for 20 years or longer, and who are still waiting.

Playing to public opinion

Despite these well publicized acquittals, I am still skeptical. These cases captured attention, but I don’t see them as progress – they are not signs of judicial or political reform. To some extent, the acquittals are aimed at appeasing public anger over miscarriages of justice. In reality, top leaders do not want meaningful change.

Cases like Hugjiltu’s and Nian Bin’s reflect a problem with the whole judicial and legal system. Torture is strictly banned under Chinese law, but in practice it is very widespread. Police officers who use torture are rarely punished, and the evidence extracted by torture is used by judges even though the law forbids it. The main reason is that the judicial system is not independent. Another reason is that it is difficult for the media, which is controlled by the state, to report on cases of torture.

Photos: © William Wan /The Washington Post via Getty Images

A long way to go

In China, any criticism of the State is highly sensitive. Human rights activists and lawyers have faced difficulties for speaking out on the death penalty. In fact, civil society as a whole in China is facing an increasingly shrinking space. 

Still, people are discussing the death penalty – mainly on the internet and through social media, which is difficult to fully monitor. People can also receive more information from outside China online, so as a result, more people are thinking about the issue. But because access to information is tightly controlled, most people still see the death penalty as necessary and do not support its abolition.

China carries out the most executions in the world. In 2007, the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest court, took back power to review death penalty cases. While scholars believe the number of death sentences has reduced since then, information on the death penalty is classified as a state secret, so no one knows for sure. We still have a long way to go.

Teng Biao is one of China’s most outspoken critics of the death penalty. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School.

Good news round-up 2014

SUDAN: Meriam Yehya Ibrahim was released from prison on 23 June after an appeal court overturned her sentence. She had been sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy, and to flogging for adultery, because she had married a Christian man. Meriam’s case attracted widespread international attention with over one million people responding to Amnesty International’s appeal for her release. © EPA/TELENEWS
BARBADOS: In November, Attorney-General Adriel Brathwaite introduced a new bill aimed at ending the mandatory death penalty for murder. If successful, it means that judges will have the option to sentence those found guilty of murder to life imprisonment or another jail-term, instead of automatically sentencing them to death. © Amnesty International
JAPAN: After decades of campaigning led by his sister Hideko and supported by Amnesty, Hakamada Iwao was temporarily released on 27 March, at the age of 78. He spent 45 years on death row, making him the longest-serving death row inmate in the world. Amnesty supporters worldwide celebrated at the unexpected news of his release, and have been urging the prosecution to drop its appeal against the decision to grant Hakamada a retrial. © Nobuhiro Terazawa
MALAYSIA: Chandran Paskaran and Osariakhi Ernest Obyangbon (pictured) were spared execution in February and March respectively after Amnesty International along with other human rights groups mobilized activists worldwide in their support. © Private
NIGERIA: ThankGod Ebhos was released on 24 October after 19 years on death row. He was seconds away from execution in 2013 when prison authorities realized that his death sentence was meant to be carried out by firing squad, which they were not prepared for. Thousands of Amnesty supporters took action for ThankGod to prevent his execution. © Private
USA: Scott Panetti was spared execution on 3 December by an appeal court, just hours before his sentence was meant to be carried out. He has been on death row in Texas for the past 20 years, having been convicted of a double murder. Scott Panetti was suffering paranoid schizophrenia at the time. His sister led an online campaign: #SaveScott, calling for his execution to be stopped, which attracted tens of thousands of supporters. © Amnesty International
INTERNATIONAL: A record 117 countries voted in favour of a global halt to executions at the UN in December. Only 38 voted against the resolution and 34 abstained. As of December 2014, 98 countries – almost half the world – had completely abolished the death penalty. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images