Death penalty opponent wwaring t-shirt "No More Killing"

Death penalty protesters demonstrate outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on June 29, 2023.

(Photo by Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

United States and Iran Help China Push Global Executions to 10-Year High

Lawmakers in southern U.S. states accused of demonstrating "a chilling commitment" to state-sponsored murder alongside "a callous intent to invest resources in the taking of human life."

The number of executions worldwide hit a nearly 10-year high in 2023 thanks to a surge in state killings by Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and the United States.

A new global report published by Amnesty International documents that the death penalty was imposed on 1,153 people last year, though the total is believed to be significantly higher due to the secrecy surrounding China's penal system. The international human rights group believes "thousands" of people were executed by the Chinese government, but the exact figure is not known.

"This is the list you don't want your country to be on." —Amnesty International

The 1,153 figure was 30% higher than the number of people who received the death penalty in 2022 and the highest annual figure documented by Amnesty since 2015 when the number of confirmed killings was 1,634. In addition to executions carried out, the number of death sentences handed down rose by 20% in 2023, with a total of 2,428.

Among the other key findings of the report:

  • U.S. executions rose from 18 to 24, keeping the U.S. among the world's top five executioners in the world.
  • The top five nations for the death penalty were China ("thousands"), Iran (853+), Saudi Arabia (172), Somalia (38), and the U.S. (24).
  • The 48% spike in executions in Iran made it the nation with the most documented death penalty cases;
  • China continues to execute thousands, while threatening the public that crime will result in the death penalty
  • Lowest number of executing countries on record shows progress.

In the United States, said Amnesty, the number of executions—all which took place in just five states across the south—rose 30% last year. The executions that took place were in Texas (8), Florida (6) Oklahoma (4), Missouri (4), and Alabama (2).

According to the report, the U.S. increase in state-sponsored murder was accompanied by new legislative moves that will allow for killing people by various means.

"Bills to carry out executions by firing squad were introduced in Idaho and Tennessee, while the Montana legislature considered a measure to expand the substances used in lethal injections," the report notes. "In South Carolina a new law was signed to conceal the identity of people or entities involved in the preparation or carrying out of executions. Alabama executed Kenneth Smith using the cruel and untested method of nitrogen asphyxiation just 14 months after subjecting him to a botched execution attempt."

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International's secretary general, said legislators in those particular states, all dominated politically by Republican lawmakers, "demonstrated a chilling commitment to the death penalty and a callous intent to invest resources in the taking of human life" in 2023.

While rebuking the U.S. for its approach to the death penalty, Callamard said the "huge spike" in executions globally "was primarily down to Iran" last year.

"The Iranian authorities showed complete disregard for human life and ramped up executions for drug-related offenses, further highlighting the discriminatory impact of the death penalty on Iran's most marginalized and impoverished communities," she said. "Despite the setbacks that we have seen this year, particularly in the Middle East, countries that are still carrying out executions are increasingly isolated."

One bright spot noted in the report is that while executions overall were up, the number of nations where the death penalty was imposed actually went down.

"The inherent discrimination and arbitrariness that marks the use of the death penalty have only compounded the human rights violations of our criminal justice systems," said Callamard. "The small minority of countries that insist on using it must move with the times and abolish the punishment once and for all."

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