Protesters show their support for death row inmate Troy Davis during a rally at the capitol in Atlanta
Protesters show their support for death row inmate Troy Davis during a rally at the capitol in Atlanta Reuters

The few remaining countries in the world that still use the death penalty nonetheless sharply increased the number of executions they carried out last year, according to an annual report from human rights group, Amnesty International.

The report suggests a two-tiered world -- while the application of capital punishment is gradually disappearing across the vast majority of countries (indeed, only 20 out of 198 nations carried out executions in 2011), the handful of nations that still execute prisoners – like Iran and China -- are likely doing so with greater frequency.

All told, at least 676 people were executed last year (excluding China for which data is ambiguous or unavailable), while at least 18,750 prisoners are believed to be on death row globally.

The number of executions in Iran is also unknown, with some reports suggesting that many such acts go unreported.

“An increasingly isolated group of countries executed at an alarming rate in 2011,” Amnesty stated.

“China continued to put thousands of people to death, and in the Middle East there was a sharp rise in the number of people executed in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. States that year-on-year figured consistently among the top executioners also included North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, USA and Yemen.”

Amnesty noted that people were executed for a variety or crimes – including adultery and sodomy in Iran, blasphemy in Pakistan, “sorcery” in Saudi Arabia, even the trafficking of human bones in the Republic of Congo.

Amnesty points to the Middle East as a vortex of the death penalty – the region saw a nearly 50 spike rise in executions during a year of widespread turmoil and revolutions.

Only four nations -- Iraq (at least 68 executions), Iran (at least 360), Saudi Arabia (at least 82) and Yemen (at least 41) – accounted for virtually all the executions recorded in the Middle East and North Africa.

“The rise in Iran and Saudi Arabia alone accounted for the net increase in recorded executions across the world of 149, compared to 2010,” Amnesty stated.

Iran also executed at least three prisoners below the age of 18, while Saudi Arabia executed one child, in violation of international laws.

In addition, the U.S., with 43 executions in 2011, was the only member of the G8 that still carries the death penalty on its books. Still, the number of executions in the U.S. has dropped by one-third since 2001.

Amnesty pointed to some good news: China removed the death penalty feature for thirteen crimes (which were principally “white collar” offenses), while in the U.S., Illinois became the sixteenth state to abolish the ultimate punishment.

Moreover, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco/Western Sahara and Qatar did not carry out executions last year although courts in these countries have imposed death penalty sentences on condemned prisoners.

“The vast majority of countries have moved away from using the death penalty,” said Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International.

“Our message to the leaders of the isolated minority of countries that continue to execute is clear: you are out of step with the rest of the world on this issue and it is time you took steps to end this most cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. “

Shetty added: “Even among the small group of countries that executed in 2011, we can see gradual progress. These are small steps but such incremental measures have been shown ultimately to lead to the end of the death penalty. It is not going to happen overnight but we are determined that we will see the day when the death penalty is consigned to history.”