LONDON, Mar 23 – Almost 2,400 people were executed last year, including more than 1,700 in China alone, but the world moved closer towards abolishing the death penalty, Amnesty International said.,
A total of 2,390 people were put to death in 25 countries in 2008 and five states — China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States — accounted for 93 percent of the executions, the group said in an annual report.
But Amnesty saw positive signs in the United Nations’ adoption of a second resolution calling for a moratorium on abolishing the death penalty, saying it "consolidates three decades of steady progress towards complete abolition".
The rights group noted that the UN General Assembly’s vote in December prompted the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to urge African states that retain the death penalty to move towards scrapping it.
Amnesty also noted that only 25 of the 59 countries that retain the death penalty actually carried out executions last year, although at least 8,864 people were sentenced to death.
This "indicates that there is increasing consolidation of majority international consensus that the death penalty cannot be reconciled with respect for human rights," it said.
However, Amnesty said that despite the progress, "tough challenges remain", especially in Asia, which carried out more executions than the rest of the world put together.
China alone executed at least 1,718 people, with Iran second with 346, followed by Saudi Arabia (at least 102) and the United States (37).
While the United States still carries out executions "consistently", the number of people put to death there last year was the lowest since 1995.
Amnesty International USA said capital punishment in the United States has become a regional and fairly isolated event, with Texas accounting for roughly half of all executions.
"Only nine of the 36 states that retained the death penalty in 2008 actually carried out executions, and the vast majority of these executions took place in one region: the South," the US section of the London-based human rights group said in a statement.
"Texas accounted for, in essence, half (18 of 37) of the US executions in 2008," it added. And the southern state has carried out 12 of the 20 nationwide executions so far this year.
Other states including Virginia (east), Tennessee (south), Alabama (south), Ohio (north) and Oklahoma (south) also allow lethal injections — the preffered method of execution, but in much smaller numbers.
New Mexico, also in the south, last week abolished capital punishment in its territory.
"Executions in the United States are increasingly a regionally isolated phenomenon," said Amnesty’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign director Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn.
"Elsewhere, concerns about cost, the possibility of executing the innocent and racial bias have led to a significant decline in support for capital punishment", she added.
While US opinion polls for years have shown a two-thirds support for lethal injections, this year the financial crisis has stressed the 10-to-one cost of execution compared to life imprisonment and made 10 states also consider its abolishment.
Anti-death penalty activists are hoping these states can tip the balance to more than half of the 50 states abolishing capital punishment in order to legally trigger its review on a national level.
Amnesty also urged Belarus to halt all executions and then abolish the death penalty.
"The Belarussian authorities must immediately declare a moratorium on death sentences and executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty completely," the report read.
"Belarus is the last country in Europe and the former Soviet Union that is still carrying out executions," the group said, adding that while there were no official figures, Amnesty International estimated that some 400 people have been executed in Belarus since 1991.
"The whole process of the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy — prisoners and their relatives are not informed about the date of the execution, the body is not given to the relatives and they are not told where the burial place is," it noted.
The former Soviet republic’s "flawed criminal justice system" added to the death penalty’s vices, with "credible evidence that torture and ill-treatment are used to extract confessions and that condemned prisoners do not have access to effective appeal mechanisms."
The report was based on information gathered over 20 years of monitoring the death penalty in Belarus, with other groups like the Belarussian Helsinki Committee taking part in its preparation.