Human rights group Amnesty International has called on China to publicly state how many people it puts to death each year.
In its annual report on the use of the death penalty worldwide, published on Tuesday, Amnesty said the number of people executed by Beijing last year was likely "in the thousands" - estimated to be more than the total in the rest of the world.
"Chinese authorities claim that fewer executions are taking place. If this is true, why won't they tell the world how many people the state put to death?" Claudio Cordone, the Amnesty International interim secretary general, said in a statement.
The 41-page Death Sentences and Executions in 2009report refused to even estimate the toll in China, saying that the organisation believed publicly available statistics "grossly underrepresent" the actual figure.
"No one who is sentenced to death in China receives a fair trial in accordance with international human rights standards," the report said.
In 2008, Amnesty put the minimum figure of people put to death across China at 1,718.
There was no immediate comment on the report from authorities in Beijing. However, last month the country's highest court issued new guidelines stating that the death penalty should be limited to a small number of "extremely serious" cases.
Elsewhere, at least 714 people were executed in 18 countries in 2009, while at least 2,001 people were sentenced to death in 56 states, according to the report.
"The death penalty is cruel and degrading, and an affront to human dignity"
Amnesty International report
Execution methods used included hanging, shooting, beheading, stoning, electrocution and lethal injection.
Most of the executions happened in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, with Iran and Iraq accounting for the highest number.
Iran carried out at least 388 executions, while Iraq executed 120 and Saudi Arabia at least 69.
Iran and Saudi Arabia were singled out for executing juveniles, which Amnesty says violates international law.
Amnesty said Iran executed 112 people in the eight weeks between the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, in June and his inauguration in August.
"The past year saw capital punishment applied extensively to send political messages, to silence opponents or to promote political agendas in China, Iran and Sudan," Amnesty said.
In Iraq, Amnesty said that the number of death sentences being carried out had spiked as the government attempted to crackdown on biolence in the country.
"It's not an answer to suicide bombing," Cordone said. "As a deterrent it's not going to work."
The US - the only country in the Americas to have used the death sentence - executed 52 people, but the executions were about half the number recorded a decade earlier in 1999, Amnesty said.
The group campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty, saying executions are often passed after unfair trials.
"The death penalty is cruel and degrading, and an affront to human dignity," the report said.
|Executions methods used included lethal injection [EPA]
Amnesty says the death sentences are used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities.
Burundi and Togo abolished the death penalty in 2009 bringing to 95 the total of the countries that have abolished the penalty.
Roseann Rife, from Amnesty's Asia-Pacific office in Taiwan, said the statistics were encouraging.
"We're carrying that as our main message that the global trend is moving towards abolition," she told Al Jazeera.
"There're countries round the globe that still maintain the death penalty ... but at the same time we are seeing countries around the globe abolishing the death penalty.
"Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mongolia did not execute anyone [last year] and that's the first time in recent times that that has happened."
Other countries were limiting use of the practice, the report said.
Kenya, which has not carried out an execution since 1987, commuted the death sentences of 4,000 people to imprisonment, the largest such move the rights organisation has seen.
Europe had no executions last year, a first since the Amnesty began keeping records, but Belarus - the only country that continues to use capital punishment - killed two people in March 2010.
"Fewer countries than ever before are carrying out executions. As it did with slavery and apartheid, the world is rejecting this embarrassment to humanity," Cordone said.
Nine further countries have abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes, while 35 others retain the death penalty but are considered abolitionist in practice as they have not executed anyone in the past 10 years.
That leaves 58 countries that retain the sentence for ordinary crimes.