• Iran records highest known execution figure since 2017
• Despite regression, 2021 global execution figure represents the second-lowest figure Amnesty International has recorded since at least 2010
• Easing of Covid-19 restrictions sees surge in number of recorded death sentences
• Almost 90 known to have been sentenced to death under martial law in Myanmar
2021 saw a worrying rise in executions and death sentences as some of the world’s most prolific executioners returned to business as usual and courts were unshackled from Covid-19 restrictions, Amnesty International said today in its annual review of the death penalty.
At least 579 executions were known to have been carried out across 18 countries last year—a 20% increase on the recorded total for 2020. Iran accounted for the biggest portion of this rise, executing at least 314 people (up from at least 246 in 2020), its highest execution total since 2017. This was due in part to a marked increase in drug-related executions—a flagrant violation of international law which prohibits use of the death penalty for crimes other than those involving intentional killing. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia more than doubled its number of executions, a grim trend that continued in 2022 with the execution of 81 people in a single day in March.
“After the drop in their execution totals in 2020, Iran and Saudi Arabia once again ramped up their use of the death penalty last year, including by shamelessly violating prohibitions put in place under international human rights law. Their appetite for putting the executioner to work has also shown no sign of abating in the early months of 2022,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
Executing countries in 2017-2021
As Covid-19 restrictions that had previously delayed judicial processes were steadily lifted in many parts of the world, judges handed down at least 2,052 death sentences in 56 countries—a close to 40% increase on 2020—with big spikes seen in countries including Bangladesh (at least 181, from at least 113), India (144, from 77) and Pakistan (at least 129, from at least 49).
“Instead of building on the opportunities presented by hiatuses in 2020, a minority of states demonstrated a troubling enthusiasm to choose the death penalty over effective solutions to crime, showing a callous disregard for the right to life even amid urgent and ongoing global human rights crises,” said Agnès Callamard.
Despite these setbacks, the total number of recorded executions in 2021 constitutes the second-lowest figure, after 2020, that Amnesty International has recorded since at least 2010.
As in previous years, the recorded global totals for death sentences and executions do not include the thousands of people that Amnesty International believes to have been sentenced to death and executed in China, as well as the extensive number of executions believed to have taken place in North Korea and Viet Nam. Secretive state practices and restricted access to information for these three countries made it impossible to accurately monitor executions, while for several other countries, recorded totals must be regarded as minimum figures.
Instead of building on the opportunities presented by hiatuses in 2020, a minority of states demonstrated a troubling enthusiasm to choose the death penalty over effective solutions to crime, showing a callous disregard for the right to life even amid urgent and ongoing global human rights crises,
Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General
“China, North Korea and Viet Nam continued to shroud their use of the death penalty behind layers of secrecy, but, as ever, the little we saw is cause for great alarm,” said Agnès Callamard.
Iran maintains a mandatory death penalty for possession of certain types and quantities of drugs—with the number of executions recorded for drug-related offences rising more than five-fold to 132 in 2021 from 23 the previous year. The known number of women executed also rose from nine to 14, while the Iranian authorities continued their abhorrent assault on children’s rights by executing three people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime, contrary to their obligations under international law.
As well as the rise in executions seen in Saudi Arabia (65, from 27 in 2020), significant increases on 2020 were seen in Somalia (at least 21, from at least 11) South Sudan (at least 9, from at least 2) and Yemen (at least 14, from at least 5). Belarus (at least 1), Japan (3) and UAE (at least 1) also carried out executions, having not done so in 2020.
Significant increases in death sentences compared to 2020 were recorded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (at least 81, from at least 20), Egypt (at least 356, from at least 264), Iraq (at least 91, from at least 27), Myanmar (at least 86, from at least 1), Viet Nam (at least 119 from at least 54), and Yemen (at least 298, from at least 269).
Death penalty as a tool of state repression
In several countries in 2021, the death penalty was deployed as an instrument of state repression against minorities and protestors, with governments showing an utter disregard for safeguards and restrictions on the death penalty established under international human rights law and standards.
An alarming increase in the use of the death penalty under martial law was recorded in Myanmar, where the military transferred the authority to try civilian cases to military tribunals, which conducted summary proceedings without the right to appeal. Close to 90 people were arbitrarily sentenced to death, several in absentia, in what was widely perceived as a targeted campaign against protestors and journalists.
Egyptian authorities continued to resort to torture and mass executions, often following unfair trials before Emergency State Security Courts, while in Iran, death sentences were disproportionately used against members of ethnic minorities for vague charges such as “enmity against God”. At least 19% of the recorded executions (61) were members of the Baluchi ethnic minority, who constitute only around 5% of Iran’s population.
Victims of Saudi Arabia’s deeply flawed justice system included Mustafa al-Darwish, a young Saudi Arabian man from the Shi’a minority who was accused of participating in violent anti-government protests. He was executed on 15 June following a grossly unfair trial based on a “confession” extracted through torture.
Positive signs towards global abolition
Despite these alarming developments, positive signs of a global trend toward abolition continued throughout 2021. For the second consecutive year, the number of countries known to have executed people was the lowest since Amnesty International began keeping records.
Trend towards abolition
In Sierra Leone, an Act which abolishes the death penalty for all crimes was unanimously adopted by parliament in July, although it is yet to come into effect. In December, Kazakhstan adopted legislation to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, which came into effect in January 2022. The Government of Papua New Guinea embarked on a national consultation on the death penalty, which resulted in the adoption of an abolition bill in January 2022, which is yet to come into force. At the end of the year, the Government of Malaysia announced that it would table legislative reforms on the death penalty in the third quarter of 2022. And, in Central African Republic and Ghana, lawmakers started legislative processes to abolish the death penalty, which remain ongoing.
In the US, Virginia became the 23rd abolitionist state and first southern state to have abolished the death penalty, while, for the third consecutive year, Ohio rescheduled or halted all set executions. The new US administration also established a temporary moratorium on federal executions in July. 2021 marked the lowest number of executions in the US since 1988.
Gambia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan continued to observe official moratoriums on executions.
The minority of countries that still retain the death penalty are on notice: a world without state-sanctioned killing is not only imaginable, it is within reach and we will continue to fight for it.
Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General
“The minority of countries that still retain the death penalty are on notice: a world without state-sanctioned killing is not only imaginable, it is within reach and we will continue to fight for it. We will continue to expose the inherent arbitrariness, discrimination, and cruelty of this punishment until no one will be left under its shadow. It is high time the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is consigned to the history books,” said Agnès Callamard.