Death penalty: Which countries execute the most people?

Iran tops official tally but secretive China is thought to be responsible for many more deaths

A death chamber in Southern Ohio
(Image credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images)

On 10 October, the international community recognises World Day against the Death Penalty, which calls upon the 87 countries that retain capital punishment laws to repeal them.

In a joint statement released to mark the day, the Council of Europe and the European Union reaffirmed the EU's opposition to capital punishment, and urged Belarus – the only European nation to carry out executions – to abolish the death penalty.

Which countries still retain the death penalty?

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There are 56 countries that carry out death sentences for a range of crimes, while another 31 nations still have capital punishment laws on the books, but do not execute anyone in practice.

So far, 102 countries have abolished the death penalty, most recently Fiji, Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Suriname, while another six only retain it for exceptional crimes such as treason.

Which countries sentence the most people to death?

China is believed to be the world's leading practitioner of the death penalty. Precise figures are impossible to obtain because they are kept secret by the government, but Amnesty International estimates the annual number of executions to be in the thousands.

Iran has the highest number of officially publicised executions. In the first six months of this year, it put 242 people to death. However, if that rate remains consistent, Iran is on track to massively reduce the number of executions from last year, when it executed 977 people for offences ranging from drug smuggling to homosexuality.

In all, upwards of 2,500 people are believed to have been executed around the world last year.

What is the status of the death penalty in the UK?

Capital punishment for ordinary crimes was abolished in 1965 in Great Britain and in 1973 in Northern Ireland, although treason remained punishable by death until 1998. The last people to be executed in the UK were Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans, both hanged in 1964 for the murder of John Alan West.

There has been no serious move to reintroduce capital punishment since its abolition. However, last year's British Social Attitudes Survey suggested that 48 per cent of Brits continue to believe the death penalty is a suitable punishment for a limited range of crimes.

Why do people support the death penalty?

Those in favour of capital punishment argue that some crimes are so heinous that execution is the appropriate response.

In Japan, where a few executions take place every year and more than 80 per cent of people are in favour of the death penalty, there is a unique justification for the practice, the BBC reports. In a society where many "live under severe stress and pressure in the workplace", the death penalty demonstrates that evil-doers will be punished. More importantly, it reassures the average person that their good behaviour will be rewarded.

Those against the death penalty argue that it is an archaic and inhumane way to punish wrongdoing.

Amnesty International describes capital punishment as "cruel, inhuman and degrading", criticising not only the act of execution itself, but the long drawn-out waiting time on death row faced by many prisoners condemned to death.

There are also doubts about its efficacy as a deterrent, despite pro-death penalty activists' claims that executing the worst criminals could deter others from following a similar path.

Studies investigating the link have produced inconclusive results, although a 2009 survey of criminologists found that 88 per cent did not believe the death penalty acted as a deterrent.

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