Last year 2021 saw a worrying rise in executions and death sentences as some of the world’s most prolific executioners returned to business as usual and courts were unshackled from Covid-19 restrictions, Amnesty International said in its annual review of the death penalty. In East and Southern Africa, the overall number of recorded executions more than doubled as a result of rising numbers in two countries – with 21 people executed in Somalia and at least nine in South Sudan. Three people were executed in Botswana.
At least 579 executions were known to have been carried out across 18 countries last year – a 20% increase on the recorded total for 2020. Iran accounted for the biggest portion of this rise, executing at least 314 people (up from at least 246 in 2020), its highest execution total since 2017. This was due in part to a marked increase in drug-related executions – a flagrant violation of international law which prohibits use of the death penalty for crimes other than those involving intentional killing. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia more than doubled its number of executions, a grim trend that continued in 2022 with the execution of 81 people in a single day in March.
“The persistent use of the death penalty by Somalia, South Sudan and Botswana goes against regional trends in Sub-Saharan Africa and the world, where many countries are moving away from this cruel, inhumane and degrading form of punishment,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“Instead of building on the opportunities presented by hiatuses in executions in 2020 all over the world, these countries which are in the minority are continuing to show their contempt for the right to life.”
While 33 executions were recorded in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan in 2021, the overwhelming majority of the countries in the region that have not yet abolished the death penalty for all crimes, including Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have not carried out any executions.
Recorded death sentences were up by 22%, with a sharp rise in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with at least 81 people, from at least 20 in the previous year. There was progress towards the abolition of the death penalty in several countries, including Sierra Leone, Ghana and the Central African Republic.
As Covid-19 restrictions that had previously delayed judicial processes were steadily lifted in many parts of the world, judges handed down at least 2,052 death sentences in 56 countries – a close to 40% increase on 2020 – with big spikes seen in countries including Bangladesh (at least 181, from at least 113), India (144, from 77) and Pakistan (at least 129, from at least 49).
Despite these setbacks, the total number of recorded executions in 2021 constitutes the second-lowest figure, after 2020, that Amnesty International has recorded since at least 2010.
As in previous years, the recorded global totals for death sentences and executions do not include the thousands of people that Amnesty International believes to have been sentenced to death and executed in China, as well as the extensive number of executions believed to have taken place in North Korea and Viet Nam. Secretive state practices and restricted access to information for these three countries made it impossible to accurately monitor executions, while for several other countries, recorded totals must be regarded as minimum figures.
Iran maintains a mandatory death penalty for possession of certain types and quantities of drugs – with the number of executions recorded for drug-related offences rising more than five-fold to 132 in 2021 from 23 the previous year. The known number of women executed also rose from nine to 14, while the Iranian authorities continued their abhorrent assault on children’s rights by executing three people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime, contrary to their obligations under international law.
As well as the rise in executions seen in Saudi Arabia (65, from 27 in 2020), significant increases on 2020 were seen in Yemen (at least 14, from at least 5). Belarus (at least 1), Japan (3) and UAE (at least 1) also carried out executions, having not done so in 2020.
Death penalty as a tool of state repression
In several countries in 2021, the death penalty was deployed as an instrument of state repression against minorities and protestors, with governments showing an utter disregard for safeguards and restrictions on the death penalty established under international human rights law and standards.
An alarming increase in the use of the death penalty under martial law was recorded in Myanmar, where the military transferred the authority to try civilian cases to military tribunals, which conducted summary proceedings without the right to appeal. Close to 90 people were arbitrarily sentenced to death, several in absentia, in what was widely perceived as a targeted campaign against protestors and journalists.
Egyptian authorities continued to resort to torture and mass executions, often following unfair trials before Emergency State Security Courts, while in Iran, death sentences were disproportionately used against members of ethnic minorities for vague charges such as “enmity against God”. At least 19% of the recorded executions (61) were members of the Baluchi ethnic minority, who constitute only around 5% of Iran’s population.
Positive signs towards global abolition
Despite these alarming developments, positive signs of a global trend toward abolition continued throughout 2021. For the second consecutive year, the number of countries known to have executed people was the lowest since Amnesty International began keeping records.
Commutations, pardons and exonerations were recorded in several countries, notably in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where at least 26 people sentenced to death were pardoned, and at the end of the year all death sentences for which all appeals had been rejected were commuted. The sentences of all persons who had been on death row for over eight years, numbering 23, were commuted in Zambia.
“It is clear that authorities in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan are missing an opportunity to break the cycle of executions and demonstrate that justice can be delivered without using the death penalty. There is no credible evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime,” said Deprose Muchena.
“Justice is not served by executing people, and the world is moving away from this abhorrent and degrading form of punishment. Authorities must stop using the death penalty.”