Countries with the highest death penalty rates

As the ninth World Day against the Death Penalty raises the awareness of the inhumanity of the law and calls for an end to capital punishment - we take a look at the five countries that carried out the most executions last year.

The latest statistics from Amnesty International show that of the 58 countries which retain the death penalty, 23 of them carried out at least 527 executions (excluding China) in 2010 and at least 67 imposed death sentences. Last year only one country, Gabon, scrapped the death penalty, becoming the 139th country to ban it.

1. China

Officially the country with the highest population, China has remained the top executioner of the world since records began with an estimated 2000 executions carried out last year – more than the rest of the world put together, a recent report by Amnesty reveals. However, the real number of death sentences and executions are skewed as all aspects of capital punishment remain a state secret.

Scarily, even non-violent white-collar crimes such as embezzlement and fraud may also warrant an execution in China. A recent judicial review removed issuing false tax invoices, robbing ancient ruins, and smuggling rare animals from the list of crimes punishable by death.

Two cases of wrongful conviction got widespread coverage in China in 2005. A butcher who was executed for murder in 1989 turned out to be innocent when his alleged victim was found alive; while a man was freed after 11 years in jail when his wife, whom he was accused of killing, was also found alive. The main methods of execution are death by firing squad and the lethal injection.

2. Iran

Although execution figures significantly fell from 714 in 2009, 252 executions took place in the Middle Eastern country last year. This included five women and one juvenile with 14 people executed. Despite the lower figures, Amnesty International said that 300 of the executions were not publicly acknowledged.

In Iran, crimes don’t have to be violent to warrant an execution. Homosexuality, blasphemy and adultery also warrant punishments by death. For example, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani – a Christian pastor living in Tehran – has been making the headlines because the Muslim-born man faces execution for failing to denounce his Christian faith before the Iranian supreme court.

The methods used by Iran have ranged from beheading, electrocution, hanging, lethal injection and various kinds of shooting by firing squad. Videos of stoning have previously been smuggled out of Iran where a person’s movements are restricted and an organised group throws stones at them until they are dead. Women are known to have been stoned for offences like adultery.

3. North Korea

Public capital punishment is common in North Korea. According to official Amnesty International statistics, 60 people were executed in 2010. The typical method of execution is by firing squad. Although the numbers have recently been declining as North Korea faces international criticism over its record on human rights, in an extreme case in 2007, a pensioner was shot by firing squad in front of 170,000 people at a football stadium. Six people were crushed to death and thirty-four others injured in a stampede as they left the stadium. Treason against the fatherland and treason against the people under Korean law are also punishable by death.

An Amnesty media release highlighted the people executed for crimes that were “not commonly considered criminal, or after unfair procedures”. It said: “A 75 year-old North Korean factory manager was shot by firing squad in October for failing to declare his family background, investing his own money in the factory, appointing his children as its managers and making international phone calls.”

[Talking politics: After Amanda Knox, the capital punishment debate is over]

4. Yemen

In Yemen, 57 people were executed in 2010, with shooting the main method of execution. Unlike the conventional methods of shooting by firing squad in other countries, Yemen publicly kills the offender by laying them on the ground while a single executioner shoots them through the heart with an automatic rifle. The country came under fire after juveniles have been placed on death row including one in 2010. In the past, the Middle Eastern country has been known to impose the death penalty on mentally ill people.

5. USA

A well-known liberal democracy, the USA put 47 people to death last year and handed out at least 110 death sentences. However, this number represents only about a third of the number handed down in the mid-1990s. The country is the only one on our top five list that reserves punishment by death for murder.

In March 2011, Illinois became the 16th US state to abolish the death penalty. The death penalty is a highly contentious issue in the United States and the policy came under fire last month when Troy Davis, of Georgia, received the lethal injection for killing an off-duty police officer in 1989. Anti-death penalty campaigners claim there is little evidence to support the execution.

The electric chair and the lethal injection are the most widely practiced methods of execution with one death by firing squad in Utah. Texas is, by far, the leader in executions, with 17 carried out in 2010. If Texas were its own country, it would have been tied for eighth in the world with Syria.

Countries that still retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes

Asia-Pacific                                 Executions in 2010

Bangladesh                                              9
Japan                                                         2
Malaysia                                                     1
Taiwan                                                        4
Viet Nam


Botswana                                                     1  
Democratic Republic of Congo
Equatorial Guinea                                      4
Libya                                                             18
Sierra Leone
Somalia                                                         8
Sudan                                                            6


Belarus                                                            2

Middle East

Egypt                                                                4
Palestinian Authority                                      5 
Saudi Arabia                                                   27
Syria                                                                 17
United Arab Emirates

The Americas and the Caribbean

Antigua and Barbuda
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Lucia
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago