The latest annual Amnesty International report on global use of the death penalty actually has some heartening news.
For the first time since 2006, the United States did not make the top five executioners in 2016—falling to seventh, behind Egypt. The 20 executions in the U.S. constituted the lowest number in the country since 1991.
Most executions last year took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan—in that order. And after three years in a row of global executions surging, they appear to have dropped off in 2016. Not including data from China, Amnesty counts 1,032 executions throughout the world in 2016—more than 600 fewer than in 2015.
The number of people sentenced to death in 2016, however, was 3,117—an increase of more than 1,000 over 2015. Thirty-two people received death sentences in 2016 in the U.S., resulting in a total of 2,832 people being on death row in the country.
But the stickiest question is China—which is so secretive about the number of people it puts to death every year (believed to be very large indeed) that it is effectively impossible for Amnesty to arrive at an accurate global figure. Among the bureaucratic artifices used by Chinese authorities to conceal the true number is simply failing to report executions for crimes related to drugs or terrorism, on dubious grounds of security concerns.
“This deliberate and elaborate secrecy system, which runs counter to China’s obligations under international law, conceals the number of people sentenced to death and executed every year, both of which Amnesty International estimates run into the thousands,” the report stated.
And, as Amnesty emphasizes, those executed on drug charges are far more likely to be low-level couriers or even just personal users than major traffickers.
As for “terrorism,” this increasingly includes angry protests and militant attacks by members of the Uighur minority, a Muslim Turkic people of China’s far western Xinjiang region, who face discrimination and persecution in their homeland.
However, there is some good news—even from China.
A decade or so ago, China probably executed 10,000 or more prisoners a year, the Amnesty report said. Now, the figure is believed to be in the “low thousands.” And in 2007, the New York Times noted, China’s high court, the Supreme People’s Court, won back the power to review death sentences, in an attempt to make use of the penalty more consistent and to root out egregious injustices.
Most encouragingly, in 2015, China revised its legal code, eliminating the death penalty for several crimes—which probably has much to do with the figure dropping. But drug crimes were pointedly excluded from the reform.
In the People’s Republic, you can still be hanged for smoking a joint.