Report: Mideast countries top executions list outside China

Report: Mideast countries top executions list outside China
Blindfolded prisoners await their executions in Iraq (File/Iraq Ministry of Justice/AP)

Middle Eastern countries remained among the world’s leading executioners outside of China last year, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.

The number of executions worldwide plummeted to its lowest level in more than a decade, with at least 483 people executed in 2020 compared to 657 the previous year, as the coronavirus pandemic slowed criminal trials and disrupted scheduled executions.

Four Middle Eastern states — Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia — topped the global list and pressed on with shootings, beheadings and hangings, ignoring pleas by rights groups to halt executions during the pandemic, the report said.

The Middle East stands out as a region that clings to the use of the death penalty after deeply unfair trials

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International

Although counts in the nations fell in line with global trends, largely due to Saudi legal reforms, the countries carried out 88% of the world’s total known executions in 2020, according to the London-based rights group that campaigns for abolition of the death penalty.

Amnesty’s annual country-to-country figures exclude China, where figures, believed to be in the thousands, are classified as a state secret.

The Middle Eastern numbers show the region is “truly out of sync with the rest of the world,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“The Middle East stands out as a region that clings to the use of the death penalty after deeply unfair trials.”

Egypt executed more than three times as many condemned prisoners in 2020 as it did the year before, overtaking Saudi Arabia as the world’s third-most prodigious executioner, the report said.

A member of the Muslim Brotherhood waves his hand from a defendants’ cage in a courtroom in Torah prison in Cairo. (File/Amr Nabil/AP)

Although Iraq more than halved the number of people it put to death last year compared to 2019, primarily because of virus-induced court closures, the government faces international criticism for carrying out mass executions.

Iraqi courts have grappled with thousands of detainees suspected of being Islamic State group fighters or supporters following the militant group’s defeat on the battlefield in 2017. Last November, 21 prisoners held on terrorism-related charges were hanged in a single day.

The region’s overall 25% decline in executions was driven by Saudi Arabia, long one of the world’s most prolific executioners, which scaled back executions last year by 85%. Notorious for its public beheadings, Saudi Arabia decreased its executions as international scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record increased, Amnesty noted.

Amnesty’s report also omits executions from some countries marred by conflict like Syria, which Morayef called “one of the big black boxes.”

483 Global executions in 2020, excluding China

Egypt conducted 107 executions last year, a significant increase from 32 in 2019. Some two dozen of the executed men had been convicted on political violence charges, particularly following the military overthrow in 2013 of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the late Islamist Mohammed Morsi.

Iran remained the top executioner in the Middle East, meting out at least 246 deaths last year, more than half of the region’s total.

The Amnesty report particularly lamented Iran’s execution of juveniles, political opponents and journalists.

Last December, Iran hanged dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam, who launched a popular news channel that helped spark nationwide economic protests.

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.

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