At least 690 prisoners were executed in 20 countries in 2018, marking a 31 percent fall from at least 993 the previous year, according to Amnesty International that reported the fewest deaths by capital punishment in at least a decade.
A total of 2,531 death sentences were also imposed in 54 countries last year, decreasing from 2,591 recorded worldwide in 2017 according to a report published on Wednesday by the UK-based rights group that hailed the significant decline in global executions.
As in previous years, China, where figures believed to be in the thousands are classified as a state secret, remained the most prolific executor, Amnesty said, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq – accounting for 78 percent of total reported executions.
“It’s very encouraging that known executions were the lowest at the end of 2018, but it is challenging to define clear reasons for the decreases and whether these reductions will be sustained in the coming years,” Oluwatosin Popoola, Amnesty International adviser on the death penalty, told Al Jazeera.
Executions in Iran dropped by 50 percent in 2018 following amendments to drug legislation that increased the minimum amounts of drugs for death penalty offences. The change meant executions were put on hold while cases were reviewed.
Amnesty’s report comes after London-based NGO Harm Reduction International (HRI) revealed a drop of 68 percent in executions worldwide for drug crimes from 288 to 91 in 2018.
Popoola said that “while the global figures of executions undoubtedly tell a positive story for 2018, there were also concerning developments which show that it’s not yet time to lift the pressure.”
“The death penalty continued to be used in many cases against international law and standards in the absence of a fair trial and for non-lethal crimes such as drug-related offences,” he said.
Methods of recorded executions included beheading in Saudi Arabia, electrocution in the US, and hanging, lethal injection and shooting in other countries.
Following a 77 percent decline in executions, Pakistan was not ranked among the top five executing countries for the first time in four years.
While the “dramatic decrease in executions is heartening to see,” Pakistan was “far from structural reform,” according to Sarah Belal, executive director of rights group Justice Project Pakistan (JPP).
“This drop in executions cannot be taken as a correction to Pakistan’s abhorrent history of handing out death sentences and executing the mentally ill, juveniles and those wrongfully convicted,” said Belal.
According to Amnesty’s report, at least 250 people were sentenced to death in Pakistan – a 25 percent increase from 2017.
With more than 4,600 awaiting execution, according to data received by JPP, Pakistan has one of the world’s largest death row populations.
In a leading case last year, Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was acquitted of blasphemy and released from prison after eight years on death row.
The Supreme Court verdict in October sparked days of protests by far-right religious groups, death threats and chaos across the country.
JPP’s Belal said the landmark case not only sets a good precedent but is also an “indictment of Pakistan’s disproportionate use of the death penalty against the most vulnerable”.
She said her organisation is working with the new government to reform the process of filing a mercy petition and reducing the number of offences punishable by death – currently at 33 – among other things.
Meanwhile, other countries took steps towards abolition last year, Amnesty said.
In December, a record high of 121 countries at the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of establishing a moratorium on executions with a view to abolish capital punishment.
Nevertheless, people continue to be sentenced to death.
Data obtained by Amnesty showed 109 death sentences were imposed in Malaysia last year bringing the number of people awaiting execution to 1,275, nearly three-quarters of them convicted for drug-related offences.
The government is expected to introduce legislation to abolish mandatory death sentences when parliament next sits in July, after a conservative backlash against plans for complete abolition.
“I strongly believe that the government knows exactly what is the right thing to do,” Amnesty International Malaysia’s Executive Director Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu said in Kuala Lumpur. “They know they need to abolish in totality. What we need is a roadmap on how we are going to get there.”
By the end of 2018, the total number of countries that had abolished the death penalty for all crimes remained at 106. The number that had abolished in law or in practice was 142, the report said.
“Only a minority of countries in the world actively use the death penalty today, so we are closer to the complete and global abolition of the death penalty, more than ever before,” added Amnesty’s Popoola.
But with more than 19,000 prisoners still on death row around the world, Popoola said more was needed to end the “ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment which has no place in the 21st century”.
“We cannot afford to rest on our laurels, but continue to call on countries that use the death penalty to abolish this punishment.”
Additional reporting by Kate Mayberry