An article – Which countries still have the death penalty?

  • Death penalty

Which countries still have the death penalty?

Many of the world’s nations still have the death penalty, so who’s doing the executing and how?

By Yan Zhuang

I don’t know if I deserve to live, but I do know that I don’t deserve to die, for everything and everyone around me, for the future, and for others that might be in the same predicament as I am in now.”

So wrote Pannir Selvam Pranthaman on his 32nd birthday, in a letter published by news website Malaysiakini on July 31, as he languished in a cell in Singapore’s Changi prison.

Convicted of smuggling 50 grams of cocaine, Pannir Selvam is one of at least 10 people the Singapore government is preparing to execute, with the inmates’ advocates fearing an imminent “bloodbath”.

Meanwhile, the United States government is gearing up to resume executions at a federal level for the first time in 16 years, with Attorney-General William Barr directing five inmates be put to death by lethal injection.

News of the planned killings, slated for December and January, has deepened the rift between US President Donald Trump, a staunch death penalty supporter, and Democratic politicians, who mostly oppose it.

And Sri Lanka has hired two hangmen in a bid to reboot its death penalty after a 43-year moratorium, as part of a war against drugs.

With strongmen on the rise around the world, and many countries moving to shore up their law-and-order regimes, is the death penalty making a comeback?

Which countries use the death penalty and which don’t?

Just over half the countries in the world – 106 – no longer had the death penalty by 2018, according to Amnesty International.

Another 28 have the death penalty on the books but have not executed anyone for at least the past 10 years, including Russia, South Korea and Papua New Guinea. Eight more, including Brazil and Israel, execute people only for “exceptional” crimes such as those committed under military law.

This leaves 56 countries who execute criminals.

Not including in China, more than 600 people were put to death in 2018. The highest number of executions was in China, although its actual rates of execution are a state secret. Amnesty International estimates thousands of people are executed there each year.

The next most enthusiastic practitioners were Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, which killed more than 85 people in 2018, more than any other country in South-east Asia, and which has more than 600 people on death row.


The United States also regularly ranks in the top five. This year so far, 10 men have been executed across five states.

Executions slowly increased annually from 2009 until 2015, when they soared from at least 1061 to 1634, according to Amnesty International. A big contributor was Pakistan lifting its moratorium on the death penalty following a terrorist attack on a school, and executing 326 people in that year alone. The numbers dropped again in 2016 and have been declining since, with 2018 recording the smallest number of estimated executions in the past 10 years.

North Korea is another unknown quantity. Reports of executions abound, although, occasionally at least, the dead come back to life. In May 2018, media worldwide reported that a high-profile government negotiator had been executed over the failure of talks between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. However, days later, a South Korean legislator stated that the official was still alive and North Korean media published a photo of him standing beside Kim Jong-un.

What are the methods used?

Hanging was the most common in 2018, deployed in countries including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Sudan and Singapore, where Melbourne man Nguyen Tuong Van was put to death for drug trafficking in 2005.

Shooting was the next most popular, used in countries including Belarus, China, Somalia, Yemen and Taiwan. Indonesia uses firing squads, as Australians witnessed with the death of drug traffickers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in 2015.


After that comes lethal injection, also used in China as well as Thailand and Vietnam and favoured by the United States, where its use has been mired in controversy.

In 2011, a drug used in executions stopped being made in the US, and its import was blocked by the country’s food and drug authority. Some states tried to obtain it illegally while others tried other drugs.

Amid a slew of lethal injection executions that critics said were botched, inmates sued states, putting executions in some places on hold for years. One inmate was granted execution by electric chair in November.

Beheading, sometimes publicly, is the main method in Saudi Arabia.

Amnesty International received two reports of women being sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in Iran but was not able to independently verify them.

Where is the death penalty being used more?

Killings in Singapore have spiked, from two inmates in 2014 to 13 last year, 11 of them for drug trafficking.

In Sri Lanka, no one has been executed for 43 years but in February, the government advertised for hangmen with “excellent moral character” after President Maithripala Sirisena signalled his determination to step up the war on drugs. The country’s last hangman, who was never pressed into service, quit in 2014.

Two new hangmen were hired in June, as Sirisena signed death warrants for four drug offenders. But the Supreme Court, which has banned any executions until October 30, is considering whether death by hanging breaches the country’s constitution by being a “cruel and degrading punishment”.


In Egypt, a handful of people were executed in the six years before 2014, when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power. But, between 2014 and 2018, at least 159 people were put to death, part of a broader crackdown against Islamists and supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Reuters reported an increase in the use of military courts. Sisi is a former general.

And last year Thailand carried out its first execution since 2009 and has an estimated 551 people facing the death penalty.

Death-penalty chamber chairs before their removal from San Quentin State Prison in California, where a moratorium was placed on the death penalty in March.
Death-penalty chamber chairs before their removal from San Quentin State Prison in California, where a moratorium was placed on the death penalty in March.Credit:California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP

Where is the death penalty being wound down?

Iran has killed fewer people lately. In 2015, it executed at least 977 people and in 2017 it executed more than 500, but after it removed the death penalty for some drug-related crimes the numbers halved to an estimated 253 in 2018.

Malaysia suspended the executions of inmates on death row in October but backtracked in March, saying death would no longer be a mandatory penalty for some offences but would instead be left to judges to impose.

The gang rape of a photojournalist prompted these protests in 2013. Five years later, India applied the death penalty for rapists of girls under 12.
The gang rape of a photojournalist prompted these protests in 2013. Five years later, India applied the death penalty for rapists of girls under 12.Credit:AP

What crimes attract the death penalty?

Next to murder, drug offences are the most common crime punishable by death. People were executed for drug-related crimes in China, Iran, Singapore and Saudi Arabia last year, and were sentenced in a host of countries including Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

Someone can be sentenced to death for economic crimes, including corruption, in China, Iran and Vietnam, and for kidnapping in Iran and Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, torture and rape are also punishable by death.

Various forms of treason and crimes against the state are punishable by death in China, Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and under the Palestinian Authority (with most executions taking place in the Hamas-administered Gaza Strip).

Last year, India expanded the scope of its death penalty to include rape of girls under 12 years old.

In Pakistan, Christians pray for Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother on death row for blasphemy in Multan. She was acquitted.
In Pakistan, Christians pray for Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother on death row for blasphemy in Multan. She was acquitted.Credit:AP

Where does the death sentence exist, unofficially?

In a small handful of countries, the crime of blasphemy is punishable by death either by law or in practice.

In Pakistan, the case of Asia Bibi made headlines when the Christian mother of five was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 over a dispute with some Muslim women over a glass of water, during which she was accused of making derogatory remarks against the prophet Muhammad. In October, the country’s Supreme Court acquitted her on appeal.

While this means that no one charged with blasphemy has been put to death in Pakistan, many have been murdered before their trial or after their release.

In the Philippines, the death penalty was suspended in 2006 but under President Rodrigo Duterte extrajudicial killings have been rampant.

Duterte was swept into power in 2016 after campaigning hard against drug trafficking, threatening to personally kill drug dealers and urging citizens to do the same.

The official death toll of his war on drugs is more than 5500, according to the government, but the Philippines Human Rights Commission fears as many as 27,000 people have been killed.

Duterte is now calling on the government to reinstate the death penalty for drug traffickers, with the matter being debated by the Philippines parliament.

What’s next in Singapore?

The Singaporean government does not announce executions before they happen. Executions are usually carried out at 6am on Fridays, says a Singapore writer, when most of the country is still asleep.

The fate of Pannir Selvam Pranthaman and the other inmates on death row in Changi prison remains to be seen but he is not giving up hope: “I am humbly requesting to everyone who reads this to save my life and give me a second chance.” – Sydney Morning Herald, 2/8/2019

Malaysia – SPAN wants stiffer jail terms, fines over death penalty for water polluters

SPAN wants stiffer jail terms, fines over death penalty for water polluters

SPAN chairman Charles Santiago says no death penalty has been imposed because no deaths have occurred as a result of water contamination.

PETALING JAYA: The National Water Services Commission (SPAN) says the death sentence for those who purposely contaminate water sources is not practical and has proposed stiff jail sentences and fines for offenders instead.

The Water Services Industry Act (WSIA) 2006 provides for the death penalty to be imposed for pollution of rivers, streams and creeks, seas, lakes, groundwater, dams, reservoirs, ditches and drains, or imprisonment of up to 20 years.

If death is not caused, whipping can be imposed.

SPAN chairman Charles Santiago acknowledged that the death penalty was not the solution, and proposed life imprisonment instead, given the debate in the country over whether the death penalty should be abolished.

He also proposed more severe jail sentences and higher fines, saying the sums meted out by the courts today were “affordable”, whereas fines running into the millions would be a deterrent.

Recently, environmentalist Saha Deva had said poor enforcement was to blame for cases of water contamination or pollution, besides corruption and the focus on profit over sustainability.

He said he had not heard of the death penalty being imposed despite WSIA being an “extremely powerful law” which could make a difference in protecting the country’s water resources.

Saha also accused government agencies involved in environmental matters of lacking the will to pursue such matters.

Santiago, who defended SPAN against criticism of its enforcement policies, said no death penalty had been imposed because no deaths had occurred as a result of water contamination.

He said there were strict requirements under the law and each case must be proven based on facts.

He also said SPAN would seek to introduce education on water conservation in primary and secondary schools as well as start a massive awareness programme to educate people on water conservation. – Free Malaysia Today, 11/8/2019

Japan: Two hanged in ‘deplorable’ executions

Japan: Two hanged in ‘deplorable’ executions

Amnesty International has again called on Japan to abolish the death penalty after two men were executed in the country this morning.

In the early hours of Friday morning, Koichi Shoji, 64, was hanged at Tokyo Detention Centre, while Yasunori Suzuki, 50, was hanged at Fukuoka Detention Centre. Both had been convicted of murder.

The executions are the first in Japan in 2019, and bring the total number of executions under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to 38. Currently, 110 individuals remain on death row in Japan.

Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International, said:

“These executions demonstrate the Japanese government’s shocking disregard for human life. While the rest of the world increasingly turns its back on the death penalty, Japan remains stuck in the past by continuing with this ultimate cruel and irreversible punishment.

“It is deplorable that the government continues to carry out executions. As Japan prepares to host the UN Crime Congress next April, it is high time that its criminal justice system is reviewed to fully comply with international human rights law and standards.

“We urge the Japanese authorities to establish an immediate moratorium on all executions and promote an informed debate on the death penalty as first steps towards its abolition.”

Executions in Japan are shrouded in secrecy with prisoners typically given only a few hours’ notice, but some may be given no warning at all. Their families are usually notified about the execution only after it has taken place.

In April 2020, Kyoto will host the 14th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, a forum that brings together criminal justice experts among governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, and scholars to share experiences and identify solutions to problems relating to crime prevention and criminal justice. Several panels will seek to address the use of the death penalty in Japan and globally.

Amnesty opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender or the method used by the state to carry out the execution, and has been campaigning for abolition of the death penalty for more than 40 years. – Amnesty, 2/8/2019