At least 588 people were executed across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) last year, the largest number anywhere in the world except in China and a 50 percent rise over 2010, Amnesty International said in a report on Tuesday.
While China, which the international human rights organization believes executes untold thousands every year, the MENA region includes an unusually large number of countries in the bulge bracket for capital punishment. Iran was No. 2 in the world, officially executing 360 people last year. Saudi Arabia sent 82 to their deaths, Iraq 68 and Yemen 41, earning them places as the world's third, fourth and sixth-biggest executioners.
The U.S. is No. 5 with 43 deaths, according to Amnesty data.
Last year was the year of the Arab Spring, but Philip Luther, Amnesty's MENA region director, told The Media Line the region's transition to more openness and democracy had not yet had any effect on laws or popular attitudes towards executing criminals.
"The reality is that while we are pushing for it to be among the issues that the new and transitional governments tackle, it's fair to say it's often not at the top of their list even if they support it in principle," he said.
He pointed to the effort by the London-based organization to get Egypt's political parties to sign on to a human rights manifesto last year ahead of the country's first post-revolution parliamentary elections. "While many parties were keen to sign up there were a couple of clauses that were particularly problematic for them. One was abolition of the death penalty," he recalled.
Not counting China, where accurate information is impossible to collect, the report found 676 executions were known to have been carried out around the world in 2011, compared with at least 527 the year before. The increase was mainly due to a significant increase in judicial killings in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it said.
Except in the MENA region and probably China, the world's governments are engaging less and less in capital punishment. Only 20 out of 198 countries executed people at all last year, down from 23 in 2010 and 31 a decade ago. In Asia, outside of China, only 51 people were executed last year, 34 in the Americas (all in the U.S.), 22 in Sub-Saharan Africa and just two in Europe and Central Asia (both in Belarus).
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen upset the global trend with big increases in executions. However, Amnesty said the figures of people put to death in the four countries may in fact be higher because deaths are not always done through entirely legal channels and/or are not disclosed. Amnesty estimates that Iran really has executed at least 634 people.
Iran is also the only country in the world that continues to execute juvenile offenders, although Tehran officially denies it. Amnesty said it had reports of varying degrees of reliability that at least seven minors were killed by the state, including Ali Reza-Molla Soltani, who was hanged in Karaj near Tehran in September in a public execution.
In Iraq, Amnesty accused the Central Criminal Court of conducting trials ending in the death penalty in just a few minutes and using confessions extracted under torture and without proper access to a lawyer. Saudi Arabia also conducts trials that fail to meet international norms and has executed people for the crime of sorcery. The number of confirmed executions in the kingdom tripled in 2011 compared with 2010, the report estimated.
In spite of the large number of executions in the region, Luther said he did not think there was any kind of cultural or religious reason for the phenomenon.
"If you take all 19 countries and territories of the region, 99 percent of the executions occur in four countries - Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen," he said. "There are number of other countries in the region that would describe themselves in a similar way culturally but have decided not to go the path of death penalty or are even going the other way."
Among the other major countries of the region, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates executed one person each. The Islamic movement Hamas, which rules in the Gaza Strip, sent three people to their deaths. The Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank, conducted no executions.
Many countries in the MENA region have kept the death penalty on their books, but rarely if ever actually carry out executions. Among them is Algeria, whose courts imposed death sentences on 51 people alone in 2011 but in practice has not executed anyone since 1993, according to Amnesty.
Luther pointed to the phenomenon as an example of how the Arab public is not necessary enamored of public executions. "Where countries have become effectively abolitionist like in North Africa, where they have not been executing for over 10 years, the clamor for a return to executions hasn't been there," he said.
Libya, which officially discontinued executions in 2011, is a special case. For most of the year, the country was in a state of anarchy as forces loyal to strongman Muamar Al-Qaddafi battled rebels, leaving much of the country under little or no control. While Amnesty did not make any estimates for judicial or extra-judicial executions for the country, it said that they almost certainly occurred in large numbers.
Syria, also paralyzed by fighting between the government and rebel, engages in executions, but Amnesty provided no estimate. It noted that last December President Bashar Al-Assad signed a law calling for the death penalty for anyone convicted of providing arms to carry out "terrorist acts," which is how the government routinely describes the rebels.
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