Bookmark and Share

Report on the death penalty worldwide lists China, Iran and Iraq as top executioners for 2003


Hands Off Cain's 2004 report, edited by Elisabetta Zamparutti and published in Italian by Marsilio, is dedicated to Levy Mwanawasa, the President of Zambia. President Mwanawasa is also the author of the foreword to this year´s edition.

Since his election in 2001, President Mwanawasa has given a strong boost to the process of democratisation in the country. A strongly abolitionist Baptist, he has moreover refused to sign any death warrants since he took office.

In April 2003, he set up a constitutional review commission with the abolition of the death penalty as one of the terms of reference for its tasks.

On May 21, 2003, President Mwanawasa refused to authorise the execution of scores of people, and decided to commute their death sentences to life in prison instead.

On February 27, 2004 he commuted the death sentences of 44 soldiers convicted of treason to jail terms ranging from 10 to 20 years. He has also announced that Government intends to propose the abolition of the death penalty to Parliament. In the meanwhile, he has ordered the review of all capital trials that resulted in death verdicts.

On May 7, 2004, President Mwanawasa commuted a further 15 death sentences, handed out for murder and robbery with violence, to jail terms of between 20 and 50 years.

The last execution in Zambia took place in January 1997, when in a single day, eight people were put to death. Since then, Zambia has had a de facto moratorium on capital punishment, that continues to be observed thanks to the firm beliefs of President Mwanawasa, who has declared that: "You cannot be slaughtering people like chickens and I will not sign any death warrant for as long as I remain president. I do not want to be the chief hanger."


The worldwide situation to date

The worldwide situation concerning the death penalty has once again registered a trend towards abolition in the past year. The countries or territories that to different extents have decided to give up the practice of capital punishment total 133, including the first months of 2004. Of these 81 have abolished the death penalty completely; 14 have abolished it for ordinary crimes; 1, Russia, as a member of the Council of Europe is committed to abolish it and in the meanwhile apply a moratorium on executions; 5 are observing moratoriums and 32 countries are de facto abolitionist, not having carried out executions for at least 10 years.

Countries that retain the death penalty number 63 - this is 3 down from 2002, when there were 66 retentionist states - and not all of these put people to death regularly. In 2003, in fact, only 29 retentionists carried out executions. This was 5 countries less that executed people than in 2002, when 34 states were recorded as having carried out executions. Yet the number of known executions for 2003 is significantly higher than the 2002 total: 5,599 executions to 4,101 the previous year. This increase is attributable to the simple fact that Chinese officials, for the first time, released near official statistics on the number of executions carried out annually in China, where information relating to capital punishment is classed as a state secret. At least 5,000 executions were carried out in the country in 2003, but the number was again probably much higher. Even this figure is already considerably higher than the ones given in previous years by the media and abolitionist organizations.

In relative terms therefore, the number of executions worldwide has in fact diminished in comparison to previous years.

Asia however remains the continent that executes the highest number of people. Considering that in China there were at least 5,000 executions, the total of executions in Asia for 2003 amounts to 5,474. In 2002, 3,946 executions had been recorded in Asia, but the number of reported executions in China, the top executioner worldwide, was always thought to be much lower than reality.

Africa continues to cut down on the use of capital punishment: 56 executions were recorded continent-wide in 2003, down 7 from the 63 registered in 2002.

Europe would be a death-penalty free zone if it wasn´t for Belarus that in 2003 carried out at least 1 execution.

North and South America would also be death penalty free, were it not for the 65 people put to death in the United States (down from 71 in 2002) and the 3 people put to death in Cuba after a few years of suspension of capital punishment.

Top executioners for 2003: China, Iran and Iraq

Of the 63 countries worldwide retain the death penalty, 48 are dictatorial, authoritarian or illiberal states. These countries accounted for at least 5,525 executions, or 98.7% of the world total of executions in 2003. One country alone, China, carried out at least 5,000, or 89.3% of the executions that took place during 2003. Iran was responsible for at least 154 executions. Iraq, up to April 9 when US Central Command chief General Tommy Franks suspended the death penalty - as the US-led coalition invaded the country and toppled Saddam Hussein´s regime - had already executed at least 113 people.

Vietnam carried out 69 executions; Saudi Arabia 52; Kazakhstan at least 19; Pakistan at least 18; Singapore at least 14; and Sudan at least 13.

Many of these countries do not issue official statistics on the practice of the death penalty therefore the number of executions may be much higher. In some countries, executions are completely covert, and news of them does not even filter through to the local media. Two cases in point are North Korea and Syria.

The conclusion that can be drawn from such a picture is that the definite solution to the problem of capital punishment - more than by tackling the issue in itself - is better achieved through the establishment of democracy, the rule of law and the promotion and respect of political rights and civil liberties.

Authoritarian states once again take the podium as the top executioners of the year in 2003: China, Iran and Iraq (up to April 9, 2004)

China, where reality exceeds the worst estimates

The number of death sentences passed, as the number of executions carried out, are classed as state secrets in China, nevertheless one fact emerges clearly: China is the world´s top executioner. Information on the real extent of the judicial massacre that takes place in China is beginning to filter through sources within the ruling Communist regime. The number of people put to death in the PRC is much higher than the highest estimates by western media or abolitionist organisations.

In 2003, according to a judicial source, 5,000 people were executed in China. Chen Zhonglin, a member of the People´s National Congress (Parliament) in Beijing, said that China carries out 10,000 executions every year. His declaration was published on the China Youth Daily in March 2004. This was the first time that a similar declaration was published by a state-controlled newspaper.

In Disidai, or The Fourth Generation a Communist Party member writing under the pseudonym Zong Hairen said 15,000 people had been sent to their death in China between 1998 and 2001. The book was published in 2002.

In June 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao praised the ´strike-hard´ campaign launched in April 2001, that led to the execution of thousands of people, and announced that it would continue for at least another year. On December 11, People´s Supreme Court President Xiao Yang called for the perpetuation of the campaign that had resulted in 819,000 death sentences or jail terms exceeding 5 years.

People accused of violent and non-violent crimes alike were fed to the shredder that is China´s capital punishment system - terrorists and separatist militants, murderers and robbers, kidnappers and rapists, drug-traffickers and small time peddlers, smugglers of weapons and cigarettes, counterfeiters of banknotes and invoices, pimps and tomb-raiders, corrupters and corrupted - were put on trial in mass public rallies, forced to wear placards announcing their name and crime, and then taken to a field and shot.

China´s Attorney General, Han Zubin, called for measures against "separatists, terrorists and adherents to evil cults" to be stepped up for the sake of "national security." In the five years up to 2003, 3,500 people had been charged with "crimes against the state", including murder, bomb attacks and arson, but also non-violent political dissent. Han confirmed that the total included suspected practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement branded an "evil cult" by the Communist authorities and outlawed in 1999.

China has also accused of terrorism activists for an enhanced Tibetan autonomy and leaders of the Uighur people in the Islamic northwest of the country.

In 2003, the practice of removing organs from executed prisoners to sell for transplants was once again denounced.

Iran, again in the top three

Iran, along with China, regularly features among the countries that execute most people in the world. Though China remains by far the most prolific executioner, Iran, in proportion to its population, applies capital punishment just as much. In 2003, 154 executions were recorded in Iran, including a woman and a minor. This total is significantly less than in 2002, when 316 executions were registered, including a woman stoned to death, but as with other illiberal countries, the real number of people put to death by the state is probably much higher. Iranian authorities do not issue official statistics on the death penalty, and HOC´s total is based on news reports by Iranian media, that very likely do not carry news of every single execution.

Iran does not limit itself to the death penalty. Its interpretation of Sharia law prescribes whippings for sexual relations before marriage, lashings for drinking alcohol and amputation of hands and feet for petty thieves.

Iraq, the last executions under Saddam

The execution of political opponents and military ´conspirators´ - a hallmark of Saddam Hussein´s regime - were kept up till its fall on April 9, 2003. The US Central Command suspended the use of the death penalty on that day, and the Coalition Provisional Authority upheld the ban. Capital punishment still features in Iraqi laws, and though the provisional constitution makes no mention of the death penalty, a new constitution in all probability will re-introduce it. On June 6, the newly-appointed Justice Minister Malek Dohan al Hassan affirmed that after the handover of power by the CPA to Iraqi authorities on June 30 his country would resume executions, and that the former president Saddam Hussein may be liable to it. This, HOC notes, would definitely not be the best way to present the new Iraq to the world.

Hands Off Cain recorded at least 113 executions for the first few months of 2003, the majority of which were carried out following summary trials. Past estimates for executions under Saddam Hussein´s dictatorship seem to have fallen far short of the real number of victims - by tens of thousands. The Coalition Provisional Authority said that at least 300,000 people had been buried in mass graves. Officials from human rights organisations talked of 500,000 victims and some Iraqi political parties estimate that more than 1 million people were executed and buried in secret places.

The full report is available at:

© Copyright 2004 (All Rights Reserved)