5 Surprising Facts About the Death Penalty Worldwide

Amnesty International's annual report reveals downward trend.

Bullet holes are visible in the wood panel behind the execution chair at Utah State Prison, where convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in June 2010.


Amnesty International released their 2012 annual report on capital punishment this week, highlighting information on the differing ways countries handle execution around the world.

Here are five of the most interesting death penalty facts from last year:

1. The United States ranked fifth for the highest number of executions.

The U.S. takes a spot behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia for the most executions in the world last year, sitting ahead of Yemen and the Sudan.

This ranking comes as no surprise to Brian Evans, Amnesty International's acting director on the Death Penalty Abolition Campaign, who said the same countries are in the top eight every year. (See video: "Inside Death Row.")

But why is the U.S.—which seems like somewhat of an outlier politically, culturally, and geographically—always in the top five?

According to Evans, the U.S. has a strict attitude toward punishment in general. Having a severe attitude toward the death penalty is only natural when you consider that the U.S. leads the world in mass incarceration of prisoners and holds records for solitary confinement and sentences to life in prison.

2. Saudia Arabia saw the execution of one man by "crucifixion."

Methods of execution vary between regions based on culture and available technology, and they usually include standard tactics, such as hanging, beheading, firing squad, and lethal injection. In Saudi Arabia, however, one accused man was put on display after being beheaded in a practice known as crucifixion, according to the country's state news agency, SPA.

The reasoning behind executions also vary around the world. In Papua New Guinea, for example, a woman and her two daughters are currently being held captive with charges of sorcery and risk a death sentence. It's common in the Pacific country for those accused of sorcery, especially women, to face horrific acts of violence that often end in death.

3. China keeps its execution numbers secret.

The Chinese government is notorious for keeping statistics about their criminal executions secret, and in past years, Amnesty International was forced to rank China based on the minimum number of executions that researchers could confirm. Since that number was always drastically lower than the assumed reality, researchers now use reliable media sources and human rights groups—rather than official government sources—to estimate the number of executions in China.

Using this data, the 2012 report estimates that thousands of criminals were killed in China last year alone, while the tally for the rest of the world combined stands at 682.

4. Japan's executions actually increased in 2012 after a long hiatus.

While the global trend for the death penalty is actually declining around the world, Japan—and other notable countries such as India and Pakistan—resumed executing criminals after a long stint of being execution-free. At least seven death row inmates were killed in Japan last year, ending a 20-month period without executions.

Why the change? "It all depends on which political party is in power," Evans said. One prime minister will come into power and abolish the practice, then the next will just reinstate it, leaving the lives of criminals in the hands of changing political whims.

5. Just 21 countries in the world carried out the death penalty last year.

In the broad scope of things, only a fraction of the world's total countries (the total being 195 by National Geographic's count) actually used execution as a means of punishment last year. That number is down from 28 countries just a decade earlier, suggesting a downward trend in the global practice.

The few countries that do still practice execution are situated in "regional pockets" around the world, Evans noted. Just four countries in the Middle East, for example, are responsible for all the executions in the region. And in the U.S., death penalty laws differ by state, with hotbeds of execution in the U.S. South, Ohio, and Arizona.

In December 2012, 111 countries—or more than half the world's countries—voted in favor of a United Nations resolution that would declare a global moratorium on executions.

As for the other countries? "They'll come around when they take a longer look at their death penalties," Evans said, "but it'll be a while."