The number of executions carried out worldwide in 2014 dropped significantly compared to a year earlier, but the number of death sentences that were issued spiked to nearly 2,500 — a 28 percent jump from 2013, according to a report released Tuesday by Amnesty International.
The rights group said that at least 607 executions took place across the world in 2014, down from 778 in 2013. That figure excludes executions that took place in China, which Amnesty said treats death penalty data as a “state secret” and has “carried out more executions than the rest of the world combined.” Amnesty estimates that China executes more than 1,000 individuals a year.
Three countries — Iran (289), Iraq (61) and Saudi Arabia (90) — accounted for 72 percent of all recorded executions in 2014. The U.S., with 35 executions, had the fifth-highest number of executions in 2014.
While the number of executions fell, Amnesty says the increase in the number of death sentences handed down is due in significant part to mass sentences in Egypt and Nigeria, both of which have dealt with "internal conflict and political instability." At least 2,466 death sentences were handed down worldwide in 2014, with Egypt and Nigeria accounting for 1,168 of them.
In June 2014, a court in Egypt confirmed death sentences for more than 180 people, including the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt labeled a terrorist organization in December 2013. A court later overturned the death sentences for 36 people in the case.
The death sentences stemmed from a police station attack in August 2013 near the southern city of Minya that left one police officer and one civilian dead. Charges against the defendants in the case included murder, joining a terrorist organization and terrorizing civilians.
“The dark trend of governments using the death penalty in a futile attempt to tackle real or imaginary threats to state security and public safety was stark last year," Salil Shetty, the secretary general of Amnesty, said in a press release. "It is shameful that so many states around the world are essentially playing with people’s lives — putting people to death for ‘terrorism’ or to quell internal instability on the ill-conceived premise of deterrence."
Amnesty did tout some of its findings as "positive," including the National Assembly of Madagascar adopting a bill that abolishes the death penalty, though the rights group noted it has yet to be signed by the country's president. The report noted that similar bills to abolish the death penalty remain pending in the legislatures of Benin, Chad, Fiji, Mongolia and Suriname.
The Amnesty report also said that 22 countries carried out executions last year, a significant drop from the 42 countries that recorded state executions 20 years ago.
"The death penalty is becoming a thing of the past," Shetty said. “The few countries that still execute need to take a serious look in the mirror and ask themselves if they want to continue to violate the right to life, or join the vast majority of countries that have abandoned this ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment."