Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region witnessed the vast majority of confirmed executions last year, according to data released by Amnesty International today. The report, entitled Death Sentences and Executions 2019, reveals that Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq together accounted for 81% of the world’s confirmed executions last year – some 532 of the 657 verified worldwide.
While this total figure represents a 5% decrease from 690 executions recorded across the world in 2018, these numbers belie the true extent of the use of the death penalty globally. China has been excluded from Amnesty’s records since 2009, in an attempt to convince the government to publish the true figures themselves. There, as in Belarus and Vietnam, data on the use of the death penalty is classified as a state secret, with Amnesty estimating that the death toll from capital punishment in the world’s second largest economy is into the thousands.
Similar doubts shroud Iran, where 251 executions were recorded last year. This number continues a downward trend witnessed since the country’s amendment to its anti-narcotics law in November 2017, which saw the threshold for the number of drugs involved in a given offence increase in order for a mandatory death sentence to be imposed. The law also had retroactive effect – meaning that those under sentence of death for drugs-related offences could request reviews of these decisions with a view to commutation. Despite the 50% decrease in executions carried out since then, Amnesty believes that the country’s true figure may be higher.
In the opposite direction, Saudi Arabia continues to increase its use of capital punishment, as the country’s highest ever annual total was recorded. The total of 184 represents an increase of 23% from 2018’s figures. Of these, under half were from Saudi Arabia, while 96 foreign nationals were put to death. The majority of these were from Pakistan and Yemen, with significant numbers also recorded from Syria, Egypt, Nigeria and Jordan. The Arabian state was also the only country in the world to use ‘beheading’ as a method of execution.
The report also notes Saudi Arabia’s increasing use of the death penalty “as a political weapon against Shi’a dissidents”. This comment refers specifically to the mass execution of 37 men in April last year, 32 of whom were Shi’a Muslims. Eleven of these had been convicted during a blatantly unfair trial conducted by the country’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) on charges which included “possessing banned books”, “spreading the Shi’a faith” and “supporting protests”. Similarly, the UN noted that of the 100 executions carried out in Iraq last year, a significant number followed unfair trials.
While there may be some cause for celebrating the global downward trend in executions in the last two years, to a certain extent, the data masks an arbitrary distinction between the so-called “West” and the rest of the world. For instance, it is worth additionally noting that the figures for Saudi Arabia do not include 364 civilians killed in air raids conducted by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen last year, according to figures obtained from the Yemen Data Project. While countries such as the UK, France and Canada may not have executed anyone on home soil, their willingness to supply weapons to a state which has demonstrated a continued disregard for innocent life shows that their morality in this matter extends only so far as it can be kept from the public eye.