The Death Penalty Club

China leads the world in its number of executions. While government secrecy veils the exact number, China is estimated to execute thousands of prisoners each year. We wonder: After China, which country carried out the most executions in 2014?

A. Saudi Arabia

B. United States

C. Iraq

D. Iran

A. Saudi Arabia is not correct.

In 2014, the latest year for which international data have been compiled, at least 90 people were put to death in Saudi Arabia. That is the third-highest number of executions carried out worldwide, according to Amnesty International.

The number is likely to be much higher in 2016, which began with the mass execution of 47 prisoners in a single day. Many were political dissidents convicted in show trials.

More than half of Saudi Arabia’s 2014 executions were carried out for non-lethal crimes, including rape, kidnapping, “witchcraft,” “sorcery” and drug trafficking.

Forty-two of the country’s 90 confirmed executions in 2014 were for drug-related offences. More than a third of those executed (37) were citizens of some other country, including 21 Pakistanis.

Saudi Arabia is one of 21 countries around the world to have carried out confirmed executions in 2014. North Korea is also believed to have carried out executions, but a lack of transparency in the judicial system and the media makes the exact number impossible to determine.

Likewise, conditions in post-revolution Libya and in civil war-torn Syria made it impossible for observers to confirm whether executions took place in those countries.

B. United States is not correct.

The number of executions carried out each year in the United States has gone down over the last decade and a half. After reaching a high of 98 in 1999, their number declined to 37 in 2008. The 35 executions that were carried out in 2014 were the fifth-highest number worldwide.

Those executions were carried out in just seven of the 50 U.S. states. Moreover, 28 of those executions were carried out in only three states: Texas (10), Missouri (10) and Florida (8). Arizona, Georgia, Ohio and Oklahoma were the other four states.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, fewer than 2% of U.S. counties sentenced a majority of current death row inmates.

Nineteen U.S. states have abolished the use of the death penalty. The most recent state to do so was Nebraska, whose predominately Republican legislature voted in May 2015 to ban the practice. Nebraska had not carried out an execution since 1997.

While some states abolished capital punishment on the grounds that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, other states (such as Maryland) have objected to the disproportionate use of the death penalty for poor and African American offenders. It also costs a state like Maryland three times as much to prosecute a death penalty case as a life-without-parole case.

The European Union has quietly applied strategic pressure and sanctions in recent years to deter the United States from using the death penalty.

C. Iraq is not correct.

Iraq carried out the fourth-most executions in 2014, with at least 61 executions, according to Amnesty International. Escalation of armed conflict in some parts of the country during the year — including the rise of ISIS — makes the actual number difficult to confirm.

Shortly after invading Iraq in 2003, the United States suspended Iraq’s use of executions on the grounds that the deposed Baath Party had used the punishment as a means of religious and political oppression. It was reinstated a year later and was used, most notably, in the December 2006 hanging of Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity.

Over the past decade, the vast majority of executions in Iraq have been carried out for terrorism-related offences. The 61 confirmed executions in 2014, however, are a dramatic reduction from the 169 in 2013.

D. Iran is correct.

Carrying out at least 289 executions in 2014 – ranking second in the world – Iran uses the death penalty more than any other country except China. Iran uses it both to punish violations of personal morality laws, such as rape and adultery, and for politically motivated offenses such as terrorism and treason.

Together, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia carried out almost 90% of the confirmed executions in the Middle East North Africa region in 2014 — and 72% of the 607 confirmed executions worldwide. (This number excludes executions that took place in countries where this information is classified or otherwise impossible to verify.)

Iran and the other 20 countries that executed prisoners in 2014 are an ever-shrinking group. As of July 2015, 101 countries had abolished the use of capital punishment in law for all crimes — up from just 59 countries in 1995.

Another 42 countries have abolished the death penalty in practice — by limiting its use to exceptional and rare circumstances (such as crimes under military law) or by not having carried out an execution in the last 10 years.

Additional 2014 data for editors (PDF)

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