Death penalty 2020: Middle East and North Africa dominates list of world’s top executioners

  • Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia accounted for 88% of known global executions in 2020
  • Egypt tripled number of yearly executions
  • Iran accounted for 56% of all recorded executions in MENA
  • 85% drop in executions recorded in Saudi Arabia
  • Oman and Qatar resumed executions for first time in several years
  • Lowest number of executions globally in a decade for third consecutive year

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) ruthlessly persisted with executions, defying the unprecedented challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, making them some of the world’s most prolific executioners of 2020, said Amnesty International in its annual global death penalty report today.

The report reveals that four out of five of the world’s top executioners are MENA states. Iran (246+), Egypt (107+), Iraq (45+) and Saudi Arabia (27)  accounted for 88% of all reported executions carried out worldwide in 2020, excluding China, which is believed to execute thousands each year, making it the world’s most frequent executioner. 

“Throughout 2020 countries from the Middle East and North Africa displayed a ruthless and chilling persistence in carrying out plans to put people to death even during a year when most of the world was focussed on protecting people’s lives from a deadly virus,” said Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“Despite a clear global trend showing most countries moving away from use of the death penalty, MENA states make up the majority of an increasingly isolated group of entrenched executioners out of step with the rest of the world, fuelling the vast majority of executions worldwide.”

Decline in executions overshadowed by setbacks

Overall, the number of executions recorded in MENA dropped by 25% to their lowest levels in a decade falling from 579 in 2019 to 437 in 2020. This decrease was largely driven by a staggering 85% drop in recorded executions in Saudi Arabia and a reduction in executions by more than half in Iraq.

However, this drop was overshadowed by a significant spike in recorded executions in Egypt -with a more than threefold rise from 32 in 2019 to 107 in 2020 overtaking Saudi Arabia to become the world’s third most frequent executioner last year. During a spike in executions in October and November, Egyptian authorities executed at least 57 people –nearly double the number of people known to have been put to death in Egypt in the whole of 2019. 

Iran which carried out at least 246 executions retained its place as the top executing country in MENA and the second worldwide after China.

In an alarming step backwards, Qatar carried out its first execution in 20 years putting to death Anil Chaudhary, a Nepali national and Oman executed four people for the first time since 2015.

Excluding China, where the death penalty is a state secret, 437 out of the 483 total recorded executions worldwide  – 90%- took place in the MENA region.

MENA was also the only region known to have carried out the execution of women in 2020 putting to death a total of 16: Egypt (4), Iran (9), Oman (1) and Saudi Arabia (2).

“While the overall number of executions within MENA has fallen compared to previous years, it still vastly outnumbers the quantity of executions recorded in the rest of the world, excluding China,” said Heba Morayef.

“Instead of consolidating their commitment to judicial executions MENA governments should establish an official moratorium on executions with a view to ending use of the death penalty completely.”

Executions after unfair trials and other violations of international law

The rate of executions is even more disturbing given that the death penalty in MENA is regularly applied after trials that do not meet international fair trial standards. People in MENA continued to be executed or sentenced to death in 2020 for acts that should not be criminalized and other offences that do not meet the threshold of most serious crimes, meaning intentional killings, as required by international law.

At least 23 of the 107 people executed in Egypt 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. Executions in Egypt shot up drastically following a security incident involving death row prisoners in the notorious al-Aqrab prison in September.

In Iran at least three people were executed for crimes that occurred when they were below the age of 18, in violation of international human rights law which prohibits the use of the death penalty for juvenile offenders.

Although recorded executions in Iran-  which alone carried out more than half of all recorded executions in MENA – continued to be lower than previous years, following 2017 amendments to an anti-narcotics law reducing the penalties for drug-related offences,  23 people were executed for drug-related offences in 2020. Authorities have also 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.  In December, following conviction in a grossly unfair trial, dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam was executed in connection with his anti-establishment social media news channel.

Military courts sentenced civilians to death in Libya following grossly unfair trials.

“Use of the death penalty is abhorrent in all circumstance and its prolific use in MENA is alarming because of the frequency with which it is applied after flawed convictions based on confessions extracted through torture or other ill-treatment,” said Heba Morayef.

Drop in executions in Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia executions sharply declined from 184 in 2019 to 27 in 2020 – the lowest number recorded since 2010. The Saudi Arabia Human Rights Commission attributed the drop in part to “a moratorium on the death penalty in drug-related offences.” However, no moratorium had been officially announced in 2020.

The reduction may also have been due to disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and a desire to avoid international criticism from overshadowing Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G-20 and its hosting of the G-20 summit. For the five months prior to the G-20 summit from the end of July to November, no executions were carried out in Saudi Arabia. However, executions resumed soon after the country’s G-20 presidency ended on 30 November.

Global executions reach lowest number in a decade

Globally, at least 483 people were known to have been executed in 2020 (excluding countries where death penalty data is classified as a state secret, or where limited information is available – China, North Korea, Syria and Viet Nam). This 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.

According to the report, 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.

As of April 2021, 108 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and 144 countries have abolished it in law or practice.

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