China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the U.S. comprise a deadly quintet. They accounted for nine out of ten of all known executions last year, according to Amnesty International’s latest yearly tally. China tops its list with 470 executions, almost two in five of the 1,252 Amnesty found.
China’s total is down from 1,860 in 2006. It is difficult to quantify how much of a reduction in the use of the death penalty in China the 2007 total really represents. Amnesty says the true figure “is undoubtedly much higher”. But it also notes that there is likely to have been “a significant drop” following the resumption of review of all death sentences by the Supreme People’s Court at the beginning of the 2007.
In the middle of last year, the authorities said there had been a 10% reduction in executions following the restoration of the court’s review but provided no numbers to support the assertion. Last month, Reuters reported comments by SPC judge Huang Ermei that in 2007 the court rejected 15% of death sentences passed by lower courts, due to “unclear facts, insufficient evidence, inappropriate determination of punishment and unlawful procedures.” Again, no data to back up the claim.
China has 60 crimes that carry the death penalty, classifies its use as a state secret and death sentences are carried out in secret. It may be using the death penalty less or it may be that the reviews are just building up a backlog of executions that will show up in Amnesty’s report next year.