Most progressive people today recognize capital punishment as an ugly tradition, and not one necessarily conducive to 21st century ideals. The countries that still kill their own citizens continue to hold the belief that it deters crime, despite the extensive evidence that suggests otherwise. Luckily, executions seem to be on the decline globally. At the end of last year 98 countries had officially outlawed the death penalty, up from 85 in 2004. But the frequency of executions within the practicing countries remains erratic, unpredictable and often unsettling.
2013 saw nearly 15% more executions around the world than in 2012, mostly driven by political destabilization in certain parts. That sounds some alarm bells: The concern is not just that capital punishment fails to solve any problems, but that the practice itself can —and often does, in these countries — create a new monster. Corruption, unfair trials and high secrecy continue to surround the pretense of “lawful execution” as shoddy governments use it to erase political opponents, desecrate free speech and ultimately violate universal standards of human rights. And still today, Amnesty International identifies cases of death sentences issued for crimes committed by minors. Where's the attempt at rehabilitation in such cases, or the correction? When you see which nations execute the most people you might not be able to help but feel that these essential questions get overlooked by ritual and regressive political thought.
We assembled a list of the 9 countries that executed the most people in 2013 using data from Amnesty International. From the highly developed to the war torn, these 9 countries continue to carry the torch of this ugly tradition. Warning: Graphic descriptions follow.
9 Japan: 8 executions
Being a developed world power doesn’t make you immune from fostering utterly sketchy institutions. Last December the country saw its fourth round of a so-called “secret execution” program — a crime policy that reads like a cruel, unfunny joke. Death row inmates, who typically spend years and sometimes decades waiting for their fateful moment, receive the news just hours before their hanging, while the state makes a point of keeping their lawyers and relatives uninformed until after the killing is carried out. The scariest part? The way Japan convicts such criminals in the first place. Closed interrogations without lawyers have been known to last days and authorities even resort to less euphemistic forms of torture to elicit a confession. Meanwhile executions retain 80% public support, so pressure from groups like Amnesty falls on the state’s deaf ears.
8 Yemen: 13+ executions
Yemen is one of four countries that still allow capital punishment for minors. Criminals as young as 15 may be put on death row without any attempt at rehabilitation by Yemeni courts wearing corruption and bias on their sleeves. Traditionalist attitudes allow judges to ignore official legislation and adopt personal standards, and even break the law to issue a biased kill verdict. To make matters more depressing, Yemeni culture retains staunchly traditional, extremist standards: Adultery, homosexuality and apostasy (renouncing your religion) can land you in front of the firing squad.
7 Sudan: 21+ executions
Sharia law keeps capital punishment enshrined in Sudanese culture. The country's Criminal Act outlines a barbaric scope of punishments including flogging, amputation, stoning and public crucifixion, and like Yemen, crimes like apostasy and adultery stand next to murder and armed robbery as punishable by blood. The UN has condemned the civil war-torn country for its leadership’s flagrant abuses of death penalty legislation: hundreds of rebels from southern Sudan are subjected to torture, forced confession and public execution by “special” courts that fail to meet even minimal justice standards. And while Amnesty could confirm 21 executions last year, a lack of disclosure and process means Sudan’s real number could well be far higher.
6 Somalia: 34+ executions
A woman having extramarital sex in Somalia runs the risk of being dragged out of her home, buried up to her neck and stoned to death in a public spectacle. Much like Sudan and Yemen, Somalia’s execution culture borders on the medieval. The UN has called for the former Italian colony to remove the practice completely as it routinely issues verdicts within days and minimal judicial discretion. Some areas of the country forego Western-style justice completely; instead, clan elders work to negotiate punishments through blood money. If families can work out a monetary solution, lives can be spared. But as is often the case, many families aren't willing to compromise.
5 USA: 39 executions
Some horrific images from Somalia that have made their way into the public forum show people half buried in the ground, tied to posts with their heads veiled and lying bloody and lifeless amid various rocks the size of softballs. Yet, contrastingly, an online search for information on America's death penalty throws up endless maps, charts, graphs and statistics - with barely a gruesome image in sight. Besides reflecting a certain surgical nature to America's capital punishment system, the wealth of study put into USA’s capital punishment institution suggests a country at stark odds with its own practices. On the decline, public death penalty support in America sits around 60% today. Yet, for the increasing masses of people who oppose it, charts, graphs and statistics often replace tangible steps to abolition. In coming years the push might come to shove, but for now here America sits, alongside countries that practice crucifixions and stone homosexuals to death.
4 Saudi Arabia: 79+ executions
Three days ago Saudi Arabia beheaded four men for smuggling hashish. While you might ask on what planet anyone should be executed for a non-violent crime (one that Saudi princes themselves can apparently get away with), how about one where police have no concrete evidence against them? Saudi Arabia’s Sharia penal code considers confessions sufficient evidence for a death verdict; as you might have guessed, the victims in question claimed police tortured them and deprived them of sleep to get the confession in question. The most popular execution method by this US ally is beheading by sword, and crucifixion isn’t far behind. Three of the 79 known killings last year were juvenile offenders.
3 Iraq: 169+ executions
Iraqi “killing sprees” accounted for much of the global 15% rise in executions last year. 2013 saw the troubled country’s highest number of executions since the removal of Saddam Hussein eleven years ago, and according to Amnesty International, most killings surrounded vague charges related to anti-terrorism and suggested torture. Here, capital punishment has become a blatant tool of power and coercion. While the Justice Ministry classifies the number of death sentences and the crimes for which they’ve been issued, families go uninformed of their loved ones’ state-sanctioned deaths, and corrupt officials barter with lives and money.
2 Iran: 369+ executions
In Iran the ugliness of capital punishment is stark: women are sentenced to death for attacking rapists in self defense, gay men for consenting sexual acts and writers for blasphemy. But to add a glimmer of hope to this list, while 2013 was a dark year for Iran’s executions, 2014 is shaping up to be a year of the pardon. One powerful moment came in April when news outlets circulated photographs of a mother sparing her teenager’s killer at the gallows seconds before his death (pictured above). In recent months these last-minute pardons have become more frequent.
1 China: Thousands of executions
Amnesty never includes an exact number for Chinese executions in its year totals because the state keeps the real number classified - but the country features at the top of the list by a long way. Is several thousand really that bad for a country of 1.3 billion? If we take the Dui Hua Foundation’s estimate of 5,000 executions a year, that amounts to one in every 270,000 people; the US executed 1 in every 8.2 million. So yes, China kills a lot of its own people, and while the number is secret the reason why isn’t. For one, the courts often lack objectivity and due process. But this is secondary to the fact the red giant prizes economic progress and efficiency to such a level that financial crimes can call for the firing squad. White-collar criminals pay for corruption, embezzlement, bribery and substantial theft with their lives.