Amnesty International has expressed concern that the death penalty continues to be applied in some Middle Eastern countries, as it reported a worldwide decline in executions and death sentences in 2017.
In its annual report published on Thursday, the international rights group documented at least 993 executions in 23 countries last year – a four percent decline from 2016, when 1,032 executions were recorded.
From a record high of 3,117 in 2016, since Amnesty began documentation, 2,591 death sentences were imposed worldwide – a 17 percent decline.
But for the second year in a row, the Middle Eastern countries of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were the top three for the number of executions in the world – along with Pakistan, they account for 84 percent of executions recorded worldwide.
China is widely believed to execute thousands of people every year, but data on executions “is classified as a state secret”, according to Amnesty.
“In many countries in the [Middle East and North Africa] region, the death penalty is used after proceedings that did not meet international fair trial standards,” said Oluwatosin Popoola, Amnesty International adviser on the death penalty.
“This includes the extraction of confessions through torture and other ill-treatment,” he told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.
At 264, the Middle East and North Africa region also recorded the highest number of drug-related executions last year, the report said.
In Saudi Arabia, beheadings of drug offenders accounted for 40 percent of total executions – an increase from 16 percent in 2016.
Since 1977, Amnesty has been advocating the abolition of the death penalty, which Popoola said is “the ultimate denial of human rights” and “serves the society no good”.
“Despite strides towards abolishing this abhorrent punishment, there are still a few leaders who would resort to the death penalty as a ‘quick-fix’ rather than tackling problems at their roots with humane, effective and evidence-based policies,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, in a statement.
“Strong leaders execute justice, not people,” he added.
For the third successive year, Pakistan was among the top five executioners in the world, putting more than 60 prisoners to death
The country lifted a six-year moratorium on executions in 2014 as part of a “counterterrorism” plan in the aftermath of the massacre at Peshawar’s Army Public School, which left at least 144 dead.
The government then expanded the use of executions to include non-terrorism offences in 2015, saying the measure was needed to combat crime.
With more than 6,000 awaiting execution, Pakistan has one of the world’s largest death row populations.
According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior, the President’s Office rejected 513 mercy petitions of condemned prisoners over the last five years, 444 of which were in the first fifteen months after the resumption of executions in December 2014.
Despite a 31 percent decline in executions and 44 percent in those sentenced, rights groups and legal experts still question its practise in the country.
“Technically, in a society where the criminal justice system has flaws – and Pakistan’s criminal justice system certainly has flaws – where rehabilitation isn’t, unfortunately, the top priority, ideally, we should move away from punishing people and towards rehabilitating them,” said Saad Rasool, a constitutional lawyer, based in the eastern city of Lahore.
People with mental or intellectual disabilities were also executed or remained on death row in several countries, including Pakistan.
Khizar Hayat, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was sentenced to death for the murder of his friend and fellow police officer in 2003.
After 14 years of legal wrangling and appeals, his execution was stayed by the Lahore High Court last year, sparking outrage. As he awaits execution, a mercy petition remains pending before President Mamnoon Hussain.
Sarah Belal, executive director of rights group Justice Project Pakistan, which has handled Hayat’s case, stressed the need to exercise presidential pardon to “make up for the failings of a criminal justice system.”
“There is absolutely no policy in place to restrict the number of people either being sentenced to death or the number of people being executed in Pakistan,” she told Al Jazeera.
“In a country like Pakistan, where our criminal justice system is mired in corruption and beholden to power and makes grave, grave mistakes, to not exercise this presidential power is actually the greatest injustice that I can think of,” Belal said in a phone interview.
In 2017, Guinea, along with Mongolia, abolished the death penalty for all crimes, bringing the total of abolitionist states to 106 by the end of the year.
Amnesty hailed the substantial decrease in death sentences in sub-Saharan Africa as “a beacon of hope for abolition”.
In total, 20 countries in the region have abolished the penalty for all crimes.
Last year, only two countries – Somalia and South Sudan – recorded executions, compared with five in the region in 2016.
“The few countries that continue to use the death penalty are increasingly becoming a minority few and we are very hopeful that, not before too long, more and more countries would abolish the death penalty and this horrible punishment will be a thing of the past,” said Popoola.
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