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The grim toll of state executions

Amnesty International rolled out its global death penalty figures for 2011, showing that the annual number of executions climbed last year by 149 over 2010, while the number of countries executing criminals has shrunk by more than one-third over the past decade.

Last year, 20 countries carried out 676 executions for a variety of offenses, including adultery and sodomy in Iran, blasphemy in Pakistan, and sorcery in Saudi Arabia. As of the end of 2011, some 18,750 people remained under the sentence of death, according to the rights' groups' findings.

The effort to assess the trends in executions has been complicated by incomplete reporting, particularly in places like Iran, where many executions are carried out in secret, and China, where death penalty statistics are considered a state secret. In fact, Amnesty stopped counting China's execution rate -- which surpassed the rest of the world combined -- because the numbers are so unreliable.

Let's have a look at some of the trends:

10 percent of the world's 198 countries carried out executions in 2011.

The Middle East saw a nearly 50 percent increase in death penalties, with Iran leading the pack with at least 360 executions (Amnesty suspects the actual number is much higher); Saudi Arabia with 82; Iraq with 68; and Yemen with at least 41. Those four countries accounted for 99 percent of executions carried out last year in the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty said the overall number of executions last year was probably much higher, but it has stopped counting public figures on executions in China. The rights group said thousands are believed to have been executed, figures that would more than double the current confirmed number of global executions.

In Iran, Amnesty "received credible reports of a large number of unconfirmed or even secret executions" that would likely double that country's number of official executions, pushing the final toll over 720.

Europe, Russia, and other countries from the former Soviet Union registered no official executions with the exception of Belarus, which acknowledged two executions. In the Pacific, only Papua New Guinea handed down the death penalty, executing five people.

The United States was again the sole country in the Americas to execute prisoners -- a total of 43 in 2011. But the United States has seen a sharp decline in the number of executions over the past decade, registering a one-third drop compared with 2001, and Illinois became the 16th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty. Moreover, the number of death sentences handed down in 2011 -- 78 -- have dropped from a figure double that in 2001.

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