Executions around the world are nearing record levels, and the Unites States is among the four countries which account for 97 per cent of the total, a report has found.
At least 3,797 people were executed in 25 countries in 2004, according to a report released today by Amnesty International.
The report says China easily operates the most stringent capital punishment regime, with an estimated 3,400 executions last year. In second place, Iran executed at least 159, Vietnam at least 64, and 59 prisoners were put to death in the US.
The number of executions worldwide last year was the highest since 1996, when 4,272 were carried out.
No official figures are available for China's execution rate, and Amnesty has changed the method it uses to calculate the number of executions there. According to Amnesty's report for 2003 China carried out at least 726 executions. The much higher figure of 3,400 executed last year is an estimate based on internet reports of trials, although it is still described as the "tip of the iceberg".
Kate Allen, Amnesty International's UK director, said China's record was "genuinely frightening". Amnesty quoted a delegate at the National People's Congress in March last year, who said that "nearly 10,000" people were executed every year in China. Corruption is among the crimes which carries the death penalty.
Ms Allen said: "It is deeply disturbing that the vast majority of those executed in the world last year did not even have fair trials, and many were convicted on the basis of 'evidence' extracted under torture.
"The death penalty is cruel and unnecessary, does not deter crime, and runs the risk of killing the wrongly convicted. It is time to consign the death penalty to the dustbin of history." Yet the figures conceal a trend that shows a general move towards abolition. "The world continued to move closer to the universal abolition of capital punishment during 2004," the report says.
Five countries abolished the death penalty for all crimes last year - Bhutan, Greece, Samoa, Senegal and Turkey. This means that 120 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.
Although the US has become accustomed to being named in the grim league table alongside states such as Iran, which it has branded an "outpost of tyranny," there were fewer executions compared with 2003, when 65 were held. Two prisoners with long histories of mental illness were put to death in the US, but the Supreme Court ruled that imposing death sentences against child offenders contravened the US constitution.
In several of the 38 American states where the death penalty is still legal, the lawfulness of lethal injection has been challenged on the grounds that one of the chemicals used may mask a prisoner's suffering.
Amnesty says that six prisoners on death row in the US were released last year after they were found innocent.
Kenny Richey, a Scotsman, whose conviction for murder and arson was overturned on appeal earlier this year, is still at risk of execution because Ohio prosecutors are trying to have the decision overturned.
Ms Allen said: "Last year I visited Scotsman Kenny Richey on death row in Ohio and saw the true wretchedness of a system that can condemn someone to years of calculated cruelty as they await death at the hands of the state.
"Even now Kenny is effectively suspended between life and death. We want to see Ohio prosecutors accept the senior state court's decision and release Kenny immediately," Ms Allen said.
In some countries, such as Vietnam, it remains a state secret to reveal the number of executions carried out. Video evidence of North Korea's execution of defectors was produced last week in a video released by a Japanese non-governmental organization.
Total in 2004
1 China 3,400*
2 Iran 159*
3 Vietnam 64*
4 United States 59*
5 Saudi Arabia 33*
6 Pakistan 15*
7 Kuwait 9*
8 Bangladesh 7*
9= Egypt 6*
= Singapore 6*
= Yemen 6*
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.