Four of the world’s five top executioners in 2020 were Middle East countries, Amnesty International said on Wednesday in its annual report on the use of the death penalty.
The report by the human rights group says Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia accounted for 88% of the 483 reported executions worldwide.
Shooting, beheading and hanging remain the chief methods, according to the London-based rights group that campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty.
It accuses those countries of showing “a ruthless and chilling persistence” in putting people to death despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the global total was the lowest in a decade, but it did not include China which is believed to execute thousands of people each year. Accurate numbers are impossible to find for China as the data is a state secret.
The overall number of executions recorded in the Middle East and North Africa fell from 579 in 2019 to 437 in 2020.
That was largely driven by an 85% drop in recorded executions in Saudi Arabia, where 27 took place, and a 50% reduction in Iraq, which carried out 45.
However, the report says the decreases were overshadowed by a 300% rise in Egypt, which put 107 people to death and became the world’s third most frequent executioner.
Twenty-three of those people were convicted in cases relating to political violence, after what Amnesty said were grossly unfair trials marred by forced “confessions” and other violations.
Iran, which carried out at least 246 executions increasingly used the death penalty as “a weapon of political repression” against dissidents, protesters and members of ethnic minority groups and religions.
Iran also executed three people for crimes that occurred when they were below the age of 18, in violation of international humanitarian law.
A government body in Saudi Arabia, long notorious for its public beheadings, attributed the sharp decline in executions there in part to “a moratorium on the death penalty in drug-related offences”. But Amnesty said it might also have been due to a desire by the kingdom to avoid criticism over the issue overshadowing its G20 presidency.
Mideast countries that had not put anyone to death in years also did so in 2020. The sultanate of Oman reversed course by putting four people to death and Qatar resumed executions for the first time in over two decades with the hanging of a Nepali migrant worker convicted of murder.
Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s Middle East director, said “Despite a clear global trend showing most countries moving away from use of the death penalty, these countries make up the majority of an increasingly isolated group of entrenched executioners out of step with the rest of the world.
“The Middle East stands out as a region that clings to the use of the death penalty after deeply unfair trials.”
By law or in practice, the death penalty is now abolished in 144 countries, though Amnesty says it expects no such change in the Middle East.