Axis of execution: American justice ranked alongside world's most repressive regimes

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America is just one of just four countries responsible for 84 per cent of executions around the world last year, a report released yesterday by Amnesty International said.

America is just one of just four countries responsible for 84 per cent of executions around the world last year, a report released yesterday by Amnesty International said.

The report groups the US with China, Iran and Vietnam as one of the countries responsible for the overwhelming majority of executions worldwide. It puts America ahead of Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo for known executions ­ although in many countries complete figures are unknown. The US and China were the only countries in the world to execute child offenders last year, the report says.

At least 1,146 people were executed in 2003, down from 1,526 in 2002 and 3,048 in 2001, according to Amnesty's figures. China headed the list, far ahead of all other countries, with at least 726 confirmed executions.

But Amnesty stressed that only "limited and incomplete records" were available on China's executions, and the true figure was believed to be much higher. A Chinese legislator suggested last month that his country executed "nearly 10,000" people a year. At least two of last year's known executions in China were carried out by lethal injection in new "execution vans", introduced in March.

Iran was responsible for at least 108 executions last year. The condemned in Iran are often hanged from cranes in public. The US came third with 65 people executed last year, including two men with long histories of mental illness.

Unlike many of the other countries mentioned, there is no secrecy about executions in the US, and complete figures are known.

In Vietnam, 64 people were executed last year, five of them, the report notes, in front of a crowd of about 1,000 onlookers in November.

Saudi Arabia, one of the countries most notorious for executions, where the condemned are beheaded with swords in public squares, came fifth with at least 50 known executions, 26 of them for drug offences.

Conspicuous by their absence from the list were Libya and Syria, both countries linked by the US to its extended "axis of evil". All three of the original "axis of evil" countries ­ Iran, Iraq and North Korea ­ were identified as carrying out executions in 2003, but Amnesty had no figures on how many were executed in Iraq in the dying days of the Saddam regime, or in North Korea. Amnesty released its figures at a meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Last year the commission called on all countries that allow capital punishment in their laws to agree to a moratorium on executions.

"The intense secrecy that surrounds use of the death penalty in many countries makes this depressing log of last year's executions an underestimate of the true extent of the use of this outdated punishment early in the 21st century," Lesley Warner of Amnesty said yesterday. "In China alone we fear that many thousands of people ... are being executed in secret each year, the majority after shockingly unfair trials.

"The US's defiant stance over executing those convicted for crimes committed as children is one particular area of concern, sending a dangerous message around the world. We call on the US to abandon child-offender executions as a first measure towards ending all judicial killing."

The report noted that 113 prisoners had been released from death row in America since 1973 because evidence had emerged that they were innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted ­ raising the possibility that other innocent men and women went to their deaths.

Evidence often emerged of police misconduct, use of unreliable witness testimony or confessions, and inadequate defence representation.

The report highlighted the case of Kenny Richey, a Scot who has spent 17 years on death row in Ohio, convicted of arson and murder. Richey is appealing against his death sentence, and attempting to have fresh evidence heard in an attempt to prove his innocence.

Kate Allen of Amnesty said of Richey: "His case is one of the most compelling cases of apparent innocence that human rights campaigners have ever seen."