The Debate

The Death Penalty: Fading Into the Past?

Amnesty International released its annual report on the death penalty. Where did Asian nations rank?

If opponents of the death penalty are winning the war on state executions globally, they have less to be optimistic about in the greater Indo-Pacific region.

Earlier this week NGO Amnesty International released its annual report on the death penalty. Although the group found that state executions had remained relatively consistent in 2012 from the year before, the use of this form of justice was decidedly downward when viewed from a medium-term perspective.

Just like in 2011 Amnesty International was able to verify that 21 different nations carried out at least one execution in 2012. This figure is down from 28 in 2003, however.

In absolute terms 682 executions were carried out in 2012 compared to 680 in 2011. An important caveat to these figures is China, where since 2009 Amnesty International has refused to publish estimates of the number of executions because China is one of the few countries worldwide that does not release figures on executions, which it considers a state secret.

This is particularly significant because Amnesty claims that China carries out thousands of state executions each year which is more than the rest of the world combined. At the same time, it should be noted that the Supreme People’s Court has claimed that the number of annual state executions has halved since 2007, albeit Amnesty International says it is unable to verify this claim.

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Iran and the United States are two other countries from the Indo-Pacific region that are among the top five countries in terms of the number of state executions they carried out. According to Amnesty International Iran ranked second last year with the NGO confirming 314 death sentences being carried out and believing many other undocumented one.

The United States, on the other hand, carried out the fifth most state executions in 2012 with 314 individuals being put to death despite the fact that only 11 out of 50 states using this form of justice to punish criminals in certain cases. The United States also had the distinction of being the only country in the Americas to have carried out a state execution in 2012. Furthermore, Amnesty International expresses concern that the U.S. is discriminatory in terms of who receives the death penalty— largely because some states have abolished it while others have not— and suggests that innocent individuals have been sentenced to death in the U.S.

China, Iran, and the U.S. have long ranked high on the list of number of state executions. Somewhat more troubling then, at least for opponents of the death penalty, is that some Indo-Pacific countries are backtracking on the issue.

Indeed, in 2012 Japan, India, and Pakistan all broke past moratoriums on the death penalty when they once again resumed state executions.

Altogether eight countries in the Asia-Pacific carried out 38 confirmed state executions in 2012. The eight countries were: Japan, Pakistan, India, China, North Korea, Taiwan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

At the same time, 19 Asia-Pacific nations handed down at least 679 confirmed new death sentences in 2012. Along with the eight countries listed above, these nations were: Sri Lanka, Maldives, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, South Korea, Thailand, Burma and Singapore.

In many cases only a handful of death sentences were handed down, but some countries saw a substantial number of death penalties imposed including Bangladesh (45+),  India (78+), Malaysia (60+), Pakistan (242), Thailand (106+) and Vietnam (86+). As this suggests, the fact that the figures are so high in these countries may reflect the greater transparency surrounding the death penalty rather than them actually executing more individuals.