An Amnesty International annual review published on Thursday documented a rise in global state executions in 2021 with at least 579 executions known to have been carried out across 18 countries last year⁠ – an overall 20% increase from 2020⁠.

The report concluded that Iran accounted for the biggest portion of the increase, executing at least 314 people – up from at least 246 in 2020 – which is the nation’s highest execution count since 2017. This was due, in part, to a marked escalation in drug-related executions.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia more than doubled its number of executions to 65 from 27 the year prior – a grim trend that continued in 2022 with the execution of 81 people in a single day in March.

The two Middle Eastern countries, along with Egypt, accounted for 80% of all known executions in 2021. Significant increases from 2020 were also seen in Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.

“After the drop in their execution totals in 2020, Iran and Saudi Arabia once again ramped up their use of the death penalty last year, including by shamelessly violating prohibitions put in place under international human rights law. Their appetite for putting the executioner to work has also shown no sign of abating in the early months of 2022,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard.

Amnesty believes that a high number of people were sentenced to death in several other countries, including China and North Korea, but figures were either not available or were impossible to estimate due to lack of transparency.

Part of the jump in executions during 2021 could be explained in the aftermath of COVID pandemic restrictions being lifted. Amnesty said that some of the world’s most prolific executioners returned to business as usual and courts were unshackled.

“Instead of building on the opportunities presented by hiatuses in 2020, a minority of states demonstrated a troubling enthusiasm to choose the death penalty over effective solutions to crime, showing a callous disregard for the right to life even amid urgent and ongoing global human rights crises,” said Callamard.

The report noted that in several countries, the death penalty was deployed in 2021 as an instrument of state repression against minorities and protestors.

An alarming increase in the use of the death penalty under martial law was recorded in Myanmar (formerly Burma), when nearly 90 people were arbitrarily sentenced to death in what was widely perceived as a targeted campaign against protestors and journalists.

In Egypt, authorities continued to resort to torture and mass executions, often following unfair trials that appeared before Emergency State Security Courts, while in Iran, death sentences were disproportionately used against members of ethnic minorities for vague charges such as “enmity against God.”

Despite the regression, for the second consecutive year, the actual number of countries known to have performed executions was the lowest since Amnesty International began keeping records in 2010.

In the U.S., Virginia became the 23rd state overall and first southern state to have abolished the death penalty, while, for the third consecutive year, Ohio rescheduled or halted all planned executions.

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