Global execution stats: good news, bad news

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 US 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 US, resulting in a total of 2,832 people being on death row in the country.

But the stickiest quesiton is China—which is so secretive about the number 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 Internation