The World’s Top Executioners

This week's execution of Troy Davis has provoked an international outcry and renewed debate in the United States over the death penalty. With the fifth-most executions per year of any country, America finds itself on a list with some of the world's worst human rights abusers.

Photos: AFP/Getty Images
Photos: AFP/Getty Images
Photos: AFP/Getty Images



Number of executions: Thousands — reliable statistics are hard to come by.*

The number of executions carried out every year in China is a state secret, but Amnesty International believes that it numbers in the thousands. There are 55 crimes punishable by death in China, including economic crimes like corruption and embezzlement, though a judicial reform carried out this year removed such crimes as issuing false tax invoices, robbing ancient ruins, and smuggling rare animals from the list.

The most common methods of execution are firing squad and lethal injection, though China has been something of a grim innovator on this front, launching a fleet of mobile “death vans” that travel from town to town administering injections.

In a recent high-profile case, China sentenced four Uighur separatists to death for their role in the ethnic unrest that swept through Xinjiang autonomous region in July. 

*All figures from Amnesty International unless otherwise noted.


Number of executions: 252 in 2010

Depending on the circumstances, crimes punishable by death in Iran can include fornication, adultery, homosexuality, apostasy, and blasphemy — as well as more traditional capital crimes like rape and murder. The overwhelming number of executions are carried out by hanging. Stoning is theoretically legal for some sexual crimes including adultery, but the policy seems to be under review following the international outcry over the stoning sentence of 43-year-old widow Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani last year; her sentence was eventually reduced to a five-year jail term. Iran also periodically carries out public executions for serious crimes such as rape.

There has been a sharp escalation in the number of people executed in the Islamic Republic this year. Amnesty International believes that at least 320 people were executed in the first six months of 2011 — a rate of nearly two per day. Iran says most of these executions are part of an effort to crack down on drug trafficking — another capital offense — but human rights groups believe the government might also be using execution as a means of intimidation as anti-government protests spread throughout the Middle East.

Iran also has the distinction of being the world’s top executioner of children, with dozens on death row. Most recently, a 17-year-old was hanged in public in the city of Karaj on Sept. 21.


Number of executions: 60 in 2010

Like China, the exact number of prisoners killed by the North Korean state is hard to come by — and it’s almost certainly higher if you count those who die of illness or malnourishment after being sent to one of the country’s massive labor camps. Crimes punishable by death in North Korea include “treason against the Fatherland” and “treason against the people.” According to Amnesty International, executions are often carried out even when the crime in question isn’t a capital offense under written North Korean law.

Public executions are a hallmark of the North Korean justice system, particularly when they involve officials convicted of embezzlement or smuggling. In 2007, a South Korean aid group reported that a factory chief had been executed by firing squad in a stadium in front of 150,000 spectators for the crime of making international phone calls. 


Number of executions: 53 in 2010

Yemen applies the death penalty for a wide range of nonviolent offences, including homosexuality. The country has also been condemned for sentencing defendants under the age of 18 to death — despite the fact that the country’s laws prohibit it. Yemen has also carried out death sentences against the mentally ill. Public executions are common, including a widely covered 2009 case in which a man convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old boy was shot in front of a crowd in the main square of his hometown.

Since widespread anti-government protests began this year, the government has been accused of carrying out hundreds of extrajudicial killings, many by sniper fire during marches in the capital. 


Number of executions: 46 in 2010, 35 so far in 2011

The United States is an extreme outlier in its embrace of the death penalty. It is the only county in the Western Hemisphere that allows capital punishment and the only industrialized democracy that executes more than a handful of people per year. There are more than 3,000 people on death row in the United States, though the appeals process can often take years. Usage varies widely by state. Sixteen states, plus the District of Colombia, prohibit the practice altogether, and several other states almost never apply it. Texas is, by far, the national leader in executions, with 17 carried out in 2010. If Texas were its own country, it would have been tied for eighth in the world with Syria.

The death penalty is a hot-button political issue in the United States, with opponents arguing that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment — which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution — and is disproportionately applied against the poor and minorities. The debate re-emerged recently over the case of Troy Davis, a Georgia man who was executed on Sept. 21 for the killing of an off-duty police officer 22 years ago, despite scant physical evidence and the recantation of several witnesses. The Davis case, as well as the execution of a Mexican national in Texas in July, has drawn widespread criticism from the international community.

Some observers believe the Davis case may be a tipping point in the national debate over the death penalty, and the issue is sure to be a topic of discussion in the 2012 presidential race with Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the running.    


No other democratic, industrialized country carries out executions on the scale of the United States, but there are a few countries where it is used sparingly. Two convicted killers were executed in Japan in 2010, and 107 people are still on death row. Domestic support for the death penalty remains high despite the opposition of some senior officials. South Korea hasn’t carried out an execution for over a decade, though it remains legal; a serial killer convicted of the murders of 10 women was sentenced to death in 2009.

India sentenced two Sikh militants to death by hanging on terrorism charges this year, which would be the country’s first executions since 2004. However, executions in the country are so rare that Assam state, where the two men were sentenced, was forced to place a newspaper advertisement for the job of hangman.

Every country in the Americas, with the exception of the United States, and every country in Europe, with the exception of autocratic Belarus, has banned the death penalty.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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