In 2020, while the world was focused on saving lives during the Covid-19 pandemic, some countries were busy taking lives.
Amnesty International’s monitoring of the global use of the death penalty in 2020 showed that the number of known executions decreased slightly on the 2019 total, continuing the year-on-year reduction recorded since 2015 and reaching the lowest figure in more than a decade for the third consecutive year. Despite the overall trend of decline, the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic were not enough to deter 18 countries from carrying out executions in 2020.
“As the world focused on finding ways to protect lives from Covid-19, several governments showed a disturbing determination to resort to the death penalty and execute people no matter what”– Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International
Notably, the USA was the only country in the Americas to carry out executions in 2020. After a 17-year-hiatus, the Trump administration carried out the first federal execution in 17 years, and executed 10 people in less than six months in 2020.
Top 5 executing countries
1. China – The true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as this data is classified as a state secret. However, China is believed to execute thousands each year, and in 2020 used the death penalty to announce a crackdown on criminal acts that affected Covid-19 prevention efforts.
2. Iran – Although recorded executions in Iran continued to be lower than previous years, the country increasingly used the death penalty as a weapon of political repression against dissidents, protesters and members of ethnic minority groups, in violation of international law.
3. Egypt – More than tripled its reported executions (from at least 32 to at least 107) and reached the highest total since its 2013 peak. At least 23 of those executed were sentenced to death in cases relating to political violence, after grossly unfair trials marred by forced “confessions” and other serious human rights violations including torture and enforced disappearances.
5. Saudi Arabia
Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia accounted for 88% of all known executions in 2020.
Notwithstanding making this list, two countries were primarily responsible for the global reduction in executions compared to 2019: Iraq more than halved its yearly total (from at least 100 in 2019 to at least 45 in 2020) and Saudi Arabia reduced its tally by 85%, from 184 to 27.
Executions reach lowest number in a decade
Globally, at least 483 people were known to have been executed in 2020 (excluding countries which classify death penalty data as state secrets, or for which limited information is available – China, North Korea, Syria and Viet Nam). It is the lowest number of executions recorded by Amnesty International in at least a decade. It represents a decrease of 26% compared to 2019, and 70% from the high-peak of 1,634 executions in 2015.
The fall in executions was down to a reduction in executions in some retentionist countries and, to a lesser extent, some hiatuses in executions that occurred in response to the pandemic.
The number of death sentences known to have been imposed worldwide (at least 1,477) was also down by 36% compared to 2019. Amnesty International recorded decreases in 30 out of 54 countries where death sentences were known to have been imposed. These appeared to be linked in several cases to delays and deferrals in judicial proceedings, put in place in response to the pandemic.
Time to abolish the death penalty
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution.
As of April 2021, 108 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and 144 countries have abolished it in law or practice – a trend that must continue.
Positive developments towards abolition were recorded in Chad and Kazakhstan as well as the US states of Colorado and Ohio, while hiatuses in executions occurred in Bahrain, Belarus, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore and Sudan. Encouraging trends continued in Gambia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan.
“We urge leaders in all countries that have not yet repealed this punishment to make 2021 the year that they end state-sanctioned killings for good. We will continue to campaign until the death penalty is abolished everywhere, once and for all.”– Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International
Read the annual Amnesty International Global Report: Death Sentences and Executions 2020 for more information.
Learn more about Amnesty International Australia’s campaigns to end the death penalty and how you can help save lives today.
Join our Human Rights Defenders program to help us abolish the death penalty.