WASHINGTON, Mar 24 (IPS) – Though most of the world is moving a step closer to the abolition of the death penalty, death sentences continue to be handed out in the hundreds around the globe, says a new report from Amnesty International (AI).

‘The good news is that executions are only carried out by a small number of countries, which shows that we are moving closer to a death-penalty free world,’ said Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International.

‘By contrast, the bad news is that hundreds of people continue to be sentenced to death and suffer in the many countries that have not yet formally abolished the death penalty,’ she said.

The report released Tuesday, ‘Death Sentences and Executions in 2008,’ provides a global overview of the death penalty. It found that only 25 out of the 59 countries that retain the death penalty executed in 2008.

The United States is the only country in the Americas that consistently executes, though there is increasing evidence that it is turning away from the death penalty. According to the report, only nine of the 36 states that retained the death penalty in 2008 actually carried out executions, and the vast majority of these executions took place in one region: the South. Texas accounted for, in essence, half (18 of 37) of the U.S. executions in 2008.

‘Executions in the United States are increasingly a regionally isolated phenomenon. Elsewhere, concerns about cost, the possibility of executing the innocent and racial bias have led to a significant decline in support for capital punishment,’ said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of AIUSA’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign.

AI found that between January and December 2008, at least 2,390 people were executed around the world with at least 8,864 sentenced to death in 52 countries.

AI’s report disclosed that executions are also a regional phenomenon at the international level, as the vast majority of executions in 2008 occurred in Asia and the Middle East.

China remained the world’s leading executioner by a wide margin, accounting for at least 1,718 executions – nearly three-quarters of all executions – although the figure is believed to be much higher as statistics on death sentences and executions remain state secrets.

As in previous years, the United States was also one of the world’s top executing nations, behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Together, the five countries accounted for 93 percent of all documented executions worldwide.

‘While it is rewarding to see the United States progressing toward death penalty abolition, the United States should be at the forefront of this movement, not bringing up the rear,’ said Gunawardena-Vaughn.

Only two officially recorded executions were carried out in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2008, but at least 362 people were sentenced to death. 2008 also saw a regressive development in Liberia where the death penalty was reintroduced for the crimes of robbery, terrorism and hijacking.

Europe and Central Asia are now virtually free of the death penalty, with the exception of Belarus.

Belarus is the last country in Europe and the former Soviet Union that is still carrying out executions. There are no available official statistics for their number, but Amnesty International estimates that as many as 400 people may have been executed since Belarus gained its independence in 1991. Four people were executed in 2008.

International bodies have repeatedly called on Belarus to abolish the death penalty. In its report released Mar. 23, ‘Ending executions in Europe: Towards abolition of the death penalty in Belarus,’ AI builds an argument for the Belarusian authorities to abolish the death penalty and join the world trend to end capital punishment.

‘The death penalty is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,’ said Nicola Duckworth, Europe and Central Asia programme director at AI.

‘Death Sentences and Executions in 2008’ addresses the discriminatory manner with which the death penalty was often applied in 2008, with a disproportionate number of sentences handed down to the poor, and to members of racial, ethnic or religious minority communities in countries such as Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

It also discusses the continuing risk of executing the innocent, as highlighted by the four prisoners released from death row in the United States on grounds of innocence. In countries with little government accountability, the laws under which crimes are punished are oftentimes ignored. The report also details the countries that handed down death sentences after unfair trials, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.

In Afghanistan, student and journalist Perwiz Kambakhsh was sentenced to death for blasphemy in January 2008. The sentence was quashed in October 2008 by a court of appeal in Kabul and replaced with a 20-year prison term. He was convicted under a law that provides for a sentence of no more than five years imprisonment.

Many death row inmates languish in harsh detention conditions and face psychological hardship. For example, in Japan inmates are typically notified of their hanging only on the morning of their execution and their families are informed only after the execution has taken place.

AI calls on all nations to swiftly abolish all forms of capital punishment, which it says basically amounts to murders by the state.

‘The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Beheadings, electrocutions, hangings, lethal injections, shootings and stonings have no place in the 21st century,’ said Khan.

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