GENEVA - China, Iran, the United States and Vietnam were the world's top users of the death penalty in 2003, accounting for 84 percent of known executions, human rights body Amnesty International said Tuesday.
More than half of known executions were in China, where the true toll could be more than 10 times higher, according to the British-based Amnesty's annual report.
But during the year, six countries either abolished capital punishment or suspended it, bringing the total who have halted executions to 117 out of a total of 195, the report said.
"This year's figures show that the majority of countries follow an abolitionist path, while others choose to remain on the wrong side of the justice divide," spokeswoman Judit Arenas Licea told a news briefing.
The report said the number of known executions world-wide last year had dropped to 1,146 in a total of 28 countries from 1,526 in 31 countries in 2002. China was known to have executed at least 726, Iran 108, the United States 65 and Vietnam 64, according to the group.
But Amnesty cautioned that its numbers -- based largely on official figures, media monitoring and private reports -- might be showing only the tip of an iceberg, especially in countries where the statistics were a closely-guarded secret.
The report quoted an unidentified senior Chinese parliamentarian as saying last month that his country executed nearly 10,000 people annually.
Arenas told the news briefing, called during the annual six-week session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, that Amnesty was especially concerned at the introduction of "mobile units" to speed up executions in China.
These were converted minibuses with four-member teams trained to carry out death sentences rapidly by lethal injection, sometimes within little more than an hour of a hearing, and then move on to another site.
In the United States, she said, very old electric chairs were still in use in some cities which take a long time to kill and inflict "excruciating suffering," while in Iran crucifixion was still on the statute books as a legal means of execution.
Last year the 53-member Commission -- whose members include several other "death penalty" countries including Saudi Arabia which Amnesty says executed at least 50 people last year -- called by majority vote for a moratorium on such punishment.
Amnesty said it was urging Commission members, among whom are European Union members and Australia which are strong opponents of capital punishment, to renew the appeal this year.
"It is time for all governments to comply with their international obligations," Amnesty said. "The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment and a flagrant denial of the right to life."
© Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd