There are many countries with the view that some crimes can only be atoned for with death. Some of them are fond of dealing out death sentences, but don’t actually get around to executing too many people. Others practice what they preach, and rake in terrifying numbers of executions every year. Others still don’t even bother calling you a lawyer before randomly sending you to the hangman. And, regardless what you think about death sentence, some of their tactics are just downright nasty. Here are 10 countries that are happy to execute their citizens, should the need arise … or, in some cases, if they get a good enough excuse.
When you look at plain numbers, Belarus doesn’t execute too many people: They used the capital punishment only two confirmed times in 2017, and women are completely exempt from the death penalty. However, while this is not a huge number, Belarus is notable for being the only European country that still executes people. As befits a nation that’s sometimes called the “last dictatorship” of Europe, their death row is extremely shady. Life is grim in its isolated, constantly illuminated cells, where the inmates are treated like they’re already dead. The officials never inform the inmates sentenced to death just when they will be executed, so every time the guards come, it could mark the final trip for one of them … or maybe they’re just taken to see their relatives.
Discussing the cases is forbidden with non-lawyer visitors, and almost everything about the legal process is shrouded in mystery — except for the eventual execution method, which will come in the form of a bullet in the head. In fact, the mystery even extends to the actual number of executions. Although official papers by Amnesty International only verify the two (and an ominous “plus”) uses of death penalty in 2017, experts think that the country has executed at least 300 people since it gained independence in 1991.
9. The United States
While the United States “only” executed 23 people in 2017 and 25 in 2018, it’s worth noting that no other country in the Americas executed a single person. Despite this disheartening comparison, capital punishment in the country is generally on the decline, and 2018 was the fourth year in a row where less than 50 death sentences were given and less than 30 convicts were executed. Also, despite 31 states still having the death penalty, only a few of them actually use the option — in fact, Texas, Florida, Ohio, and California carried out over half of 2018’s death sentences. Public support of the death penalty is also on the decline, though 56% of Americans remain in favor.
The methods and practicalities of execution are a constant source of contention in the states still indulging in the practice. Far and away the most commonly accepted method is lethal injection, which comes with its own set of problems, as the required drugs are hard to come by, and executions are often botched. Other methods include the electric chair, lethal gas, hanging and firing squad, though they’re only used by a handful of states and are now extremely rare.
Somalia’s 24 official executions in 2017 divide 55 between the Federal Government of Somalia and the semi-autonomous Puntland. Of course, in a country long plagued by lethal violence, the definition of “official” can be somewhat hazy. Military courts and militant groups have indulged in summary executions, where the people sentenced to death are killed publicly, in front of audiences of up to 300 people. This is not a particularly new trend, but the executions have clearly increased in recent years, which has attracted the attention of various human rights groups and a local delegation from the European Union, which put in a request for Somali authorities to prohibit death penalty.
A major problem here is military courts, which gleefully overextend their authority and sentence people without due legal process. One case in Puntland was particularly problematic, as five young men who were accused of murdering town officials were killed by firing squad … only, reports indicate that they were given no access to lawyers, their confessions were coerced, and they were too young to be tried as adults.
Egypt may not be the first country you think of when it comes to death penalty, but with their 35 executions in 2017 alone, they’re certainly up there with the more enthusiastic practitioners. In recent years, the country has shown a nasty penchant for mass trials, which are one of the easiest ways to get a death sentence — after all, who has time to go through all that evidence on a person-by-person basis, when you can just sentence them by the dozen?
The emergence of mass trials have seen Egyptian courts hand out death sentences to more than 100 people at once, which has dramatically inflated the country’s death row. Between 2011 and 2013, Egypt sentenced 323 people to death and carried out just one execution — yet a whopping 2,159 people received death sentences between January 2014 and February 2018. During that time, at least 83 executions were carried out, including 15 people who were mass executed at the same time in December 2017.
The reason behind the huge death sentence numbers and comparatively low amount of executions may be the fact that every single death sentence that the country gives from a mass trial is absurdly illegal under international law, and the UN is always ready to remind the country of this point. Still, it looks like for the time being, Egyptian officials seem determined to walk the path they’ve chosen. In 2019 alone, 15 people have been executed within no less than three weeks, and human rights campaigners say that all were subjected to unjust trials and torture.
Pakistan’s 60-plus executions in 2017 are far from the worst numbers on this list, but the country is still one of the most prolific death penalty users. Despite slowly shrinking its death row population, the country is still responsible for 13% of all global executions that we know of. Since 2004, the country has sentenced an estimated 4,500 people to death (or one person a day). In fact, Pakistan’s death row population accounts for 26% of every death row prisoner in a world … despite a 35% reduction in recent years.
There are some signs that the death penalty-happy country is slowly phasing this mode of punishment out, though. According to research by Justice Project Pakistan, their Supreme Court has overturned an impressive 85% of death sentences since December 2014.
Iraq executed at least 125 people in 2017, and while the large-scale extrajudicial executions and “disappearances” of the Saddam Hussein regime are a thing of the past, the country can still be fairly cruel with its attitudes toward capital punishment. The scope of death penalty worthy crimes has been getting wider for 20 years now, and some observers have accused the country of a policy of “prison cleansing” — using capital punishment to purge the prisons from thousands of prisoners the officials are uncomfortable with for whatever reason. Executions can be summary, and often, the bodies are disposed in ways that give the relatives no time or chance to observe proper burial rites.
Iraqi death sentences can be pretty swift, especially if the thing you’re suspected of is bad enough. If she’s suspected of ISIS sympathies, a 42-year-old housewife with no legal counsel might find herself facing a judge and having just two minutes to defend herself … before almost inevitably being sentenced to death by hanging. This actually happened in 2018, and it took one judge only two hours to try, convict, and sentence 14 women to death.
4. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia executed 146 people in 2017, and shows no signs of slowing down: Amnesty International estimates that in early 2018 Saudi Arabia was at a pace of an execution every two days, and during the first four months of 2018, the country beheaded 48 offenders.
Yes, you read that right. Saudi Arabia is notorious for its strange (or rather all too familiar, if you’re into barbarian movies) method of execution: Public beheadings. It’s the only country in the world to routinely use this method, and the bodies of the executed are commonly put on display. What’s more, the crimes people lose their heads for are often … less than deathly serious. Saudi Arabia’s justice system doesn’t have a criminal code, which leaves many crimes and punishments up to the interpretation of the judge presiding the case. Mere suspicion of the person’s character can lead into a discretionary punishment called ta’zir, and the crimes people have been sentenced to death for can range from drug offenses and armed robbery to adultery, sorcery, and merely supporting a group petition.
Iran is a notoriously execution-happy country, with its over 500 executions in 2017 alone accounting for 51% of the world’s recorded executions. The country prefers hanging as its main execution method, and Amnesty International reports that a particularly unfortunate aspect of Iranian capital punishment is that it can be applied to particularly young citizens. Juvenile offenders as young as 9 (women) and 15 (men) can be sentenced to execution, and the country has no problem putting this to practice: between 2005 and 2015, at least 73 young offenders tragically faced the hemp rope, and the country shows no interest in changing this policy.
Currently, the UN estimates that at least 160 Iranians who were under 18 at the time of (allegedly) committing their crime are waiting in death row. They spend an average of seven years in their cells before their execution, and to add to their mental anguish, the authorities sometimes schedule their executions … only to postpone them at a last minute, so the cycle of waiting starts all over again.
Although official statistics are hard to come by, Iran has a history of using stoning as an execution method, occasionally flogging the convict before carrying out the death. This gruesome procedure is mostly used on women, and involves burying the person up to the neck (women) or waist (men) before people hurl stones at them until death or incapacitation. In the unlikely event that the person survives the barrage of stones but can’t escape the pit (which terminates the penalty, and technically gives a fighting chance to the men since they’re not buried as deep), their head may be smashed with a concrete block.
International pressure forced Iran to remove stoning from their penal code, but loopholes remain because Sharia law still allows its use.
2. North Korea
No one knows precisely how many people North Korea executes every year, but presumably the closest possible estimate is “lots.” However, things get truly chilling when you venture beyond mere numbers and look into their execution methods. Although the country technically lists hanging and shooting as most common implements of legally mandated death, their legislation allows pretty much any method as long as it leads to “extinguishing bodily life.”
While most death sentences in North Korea are carried out behind closed doors, the country is infamous for its public executions. Escaped prisoners have reported that a single facility can carry out up to 20 executions per year to serve as an example to others. Some of these public executions are fairly run-in-the-mill firing squad types, but every once in a while, the higher-ups can get awfully creative. There are (often unconfirmed) reports that some of the more senior officials have been executed by flamethrowers, mortar rounds, and anti-aircraft guns. What’s more, you can get a death sentence from pretty much anything, ranging from petty theft and prostitution to watching South Korean media.
When talking about the people China executes, Amnesty International’s report on capital punishment gives up on numbers altogether and merely jots down a dejected “+”. As ABC describes, this is because the country’s use of capital punishment relies heavily on secret executions, forced confessions and other things that raise some serious questions about the state of the country’s justice system. Some reports even indicate that organ harvesting may be involved.
China classifies executions as state secrets. It doesn’t release the names of the people killed this way, so there’s no way for outside parties to know even ballpark figures, and even the relatives of the prisoners tend to only find out after the sentence has been already carried out. Extremely conservative estimates say that China deals out death penalties to roughly 2,000 people every year, and the true number could be much higher. Only one thing is certain: The country puts easily more people to death every year than the rest of the world combined.