September 21, 2023

Thousands of death sentences imposed worldwide in 2020 amid global pandemic

Young people celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Young people celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Amnesty International on Friday released its annual global review of the death penalty, reporting that although there was a slight decrease in executions in 2020, 18 countries still carried out executions despite the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic.

“While there was an overall trend of decline, some countries pursued or even increased the number of executions carried out, indicating a chilling disregard for human life at a time when the world’s attention focused on protecting people from a deadly virus,” said the Amnesty International press release.

Amnesty International asserted that China is believed to be executing thousands each year, making it the “world’s most prolific executioner” by a substantial margin. The organization asserts that China even handed out the death penalty for smaller crimes, such as drug offenses and corruption.

However, China classifies its capital punishment numbers as a state secret and does not disclose any specific data to the public. Therefore, it is not included in any of Amnesty International’s figures. Concerningly, the world leader in executions refuses to disclose how many people it is sentencing to death, though it is certainly no small number.

The organization reports that the next four countries in execution numbers, respectively, are Iran (246+), Egypt (107+), Iraq (45+) and Saudi Arabia (27). These four countries combine to account for 88% of all known executions in 2020.

Around the world, at least 483 people were known to be executed under the death penalty in 2020. This number represents the lowest number recorded by Amnesty International in at least a decade. Yet it is still alarmingly high, especially when looked at in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The death penalty is an abhorrent punishment and pursuing executions in the middle of a pandemic further highlights its inherent cruelty,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

The number of death sentences known to have been imposed worldwide in 2020 (at least 1,477) was down by 36% compared to 2019.

While international law prohibits the use of the death penalty for crimes that do not involve intentional killing, there were many cases around the world in 2020 where the penalty was imposed for reasons such as blasphemy, drug offenses, and corruption.

While Middle Eastern countries are leading the way in number of reported executions, this epidemic is certainly not restricted to any one region.

According to Amnesty International, “The United States was the only country in the Americas to carry out executions in 2020. In July, the Trump administration carried out the first federal execution in 17 years, and five states put seven people to death between them.”

It also said, “The Trump administration resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus and put a staggering 10 men to death in less than six months.”

Amnesty International is calling on President Biden and Congress to take a different path from the previous administration, by taking steps to oppose the death penalty in the United States.

The President’s campaign website promised “Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.”

Currently, 108 countries in the world have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and 144 countries have abolished it in law or practice. Secretary General of Amnesty International Agnès Callamard said that despite some concerns, “the overall picture in 2020 was positive.”

“We urge leaders in all countries that have not yet repealed this punishment to make 2021 the year that they end state-sanctioned killings for good. We will continue to campaign until the death penalty is abolished everywhere, once and for all,” said Callamard.

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