The world is slowly moving towards ending the use of capital punishment, the London-based human rights group Amnesty International says, despite its latest report revealing a sharp increase in those put to death and those sentenced to death last year compared to the preceding year.

In its annual survey, Death Sentences and Executions in 2008, the rights group says in 52 countries 2,390 persons were executed in 2008, up from 1,252 in 2007, while 8,864 were sentenced to death, up from 3,347.

The U.S., China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan together accounted for 93% of all documented executions worldwide.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization said it was encouraging that just 59 nations retained the death penalty and so few actually used it. In the U.S.--the only country in the Americas that consistently executes convicted persons--only nine of the 36 states that retained the death penalty in 2008 actually carried out executions, and most of these executions took place in one region: the South. Texas accounted for half (18 of 37) of the U.S. executions in 2008.

Of the 25 nations using the death penalty in 2008, China was the most prolific, using lethal injection and shooting to execute more than 1,718 persons--near three-quarters of all executions--though Beijing does not publish data on the death penalty.

Punishments such as beheading, stoning and electrocution, Amnesty's secretary-general, Irene Khan, said have no place in the 21st Century. Despite the rise in executions during 2008, she said, there were reasons to be optimistic.

The good news is that executions are only carried out by a small number of countries, which shows that we are moving closer to a death-penalty-free world, she said.

The group interpreted positively decisions by Argentina and Uzbekistan to abolish the death penalty in 2008. The fact that Belarus was the only European nation to carry out executions was highlighted.

The group's report disclosed that executions were also a regional phenomenon in the global context, as most executions in 2008 were carried out in Asia and the Middle East. The other worst offenders were Iran (346), Saudi Arabia (102), Pakistan (36) and Iraq (34).

Europe and Central Asia were now virtually free of the death penalty--with the exception of Belarus.

However, Amnesty also noted worrying instances of some nations bucking a long-term trend away from the death penalty. St Kitts and Nevis carried out the first execution in the Caribbean for five years. And, Liberia introduced capital punishment for robbery, terrorism and hijacking.

Of the top six countries in Amnesty's list, only the U.S. (37) publishes statistics on the penalty's use. The figures for the others--who frequently give much higher figures--are estimates based on what Amnesty International has verified through media reports, rights groups and official statements.

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