At dawn on Friday in Changi Prison in Singapore, which leads the world for executions per head of population, Nguyen Tuong Van, 25, an Australian, was hanged for heroin smuggling.

 

Also on Friday murderer Kenneth Boyd, 57, killed by lethal injection in the eastern state of North Carolina, became the 1000th person executed in the US since the reintroduction in 1976 of the death penalty.

 

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said afterwards that President Bush "strongly supports" the death penalty because it ultimately "helps save innocent lives".

 

Ahmed ben Mohamed al-Chater, a Saudi Arabian convicted of murder, was beheaded on Friday in the district of al Qonfeza, near the Muslim holy city of Mecca, becoming the 75th person executed in the kingdom this year, according to AFP records.

 

Death penalty abolished

 

Yet the death penalty is losing ground - with 122 countries or territories abolishing it in law or in practice, according to rights organisation Amnesty International.

 

Some 74 other states retain and use capital punishment, although those executing prisoners in any one year are much smaller.

 

Methods of execution range from beheading in Saudi Arabia to electrocution sometimes used in the United States, hanging in Egypt and Japan, lethal injection in Guatemala and Thailand, shooting in Belarus and China, and stoning in Afghanistan and Iran.

 

Nguyen Tuong Van was hanged 
in Singapore on Friday

More than 40 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes since 1990, Amnesty said.

 

Russia is in the process of suppressing capital punishment as a member of the Council of Europe group of countries subscribing to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

 

More than 7390 people were sentenced to death in 2004 and more than 3790 were executed, Amnesty said, although it also said that the true figure was probably much higher.

 

Highest executions

 

China accounted for most recorded executions that year (3400), while Iran put 159 people to death, Vietnam 64 and the United States 59.

 

Singapore had the world's highest execution rate relative to its population of 4.2 million, sending 420 convicts to the gallows between 1991 and 2004, Amnesty said.

 

Anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain estimated that at least 5523 executions were carried out worldwide in 2004, with China accounting for more than 5000.

 

Although the Stalinist state of North Korea does not release figures, Hands Off Cain said dozens of convicts were put to death there every year.

 

Rights groups believe that the figure is much higher in China than official statistics claim.

 

In March 2004, a delegate to China's National People's Congress legislature estimated that "close to 10,000" people were executed annually in the country.