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Amnesty Says China is World's Leading Executioner

A new Amnesty International report says about a third of the more than 1,200 people executed in 24 countries during 2007 were killed in China. A further 3,000 were sentenced to death in 51 countries. But, as Tendai Maphosa reports, the rights body says the numbers could be higher.

The Amnesty International report identifies China as the world's top executioner. It says at least 470 people were executed there in 2007. But Amnesty says the actual figure is undoubtedly much higher. The rights group's Piers Bannister explains.

"In China and other countries the death penalty is classified as a state secret therefore nobody actually knows the true number of people put to death in China in other countries like Mongolia, Vietnam because the governments simply will not tell you," said Bannister. "So we are really laying down a challenge to those countries particularly to China in a year when it hosts the world in the Olympic Games to be honest and actually tell the world how many people it puts to death each year."

Bannister says the figure published in the report is an absolute minimum based on media reports and monitoring the courts. But he says given the fact that China is such a big country, it is impossible to monitor effectively.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States complete the list of the top five countries where the most executions were carried out in 2007. The combined executions in the top five account for 88 percent of all known executions. Forty-two executions were carried out in the United States.

Many countries, Amnesty says, execute people for crimes not commonly considered criminal, or after unfair procedures. It gives the example of a man who was stoned to death for adultery in Iran. It says in North Korea a factory manager was shot by firing squad for failing to declare his family background, investing his own money in the factory, appointing his children as its managers, and making international phone calls.

Amnesty's Bannister says despite having ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen continue to execute people who were guilty of crimes committed when they were under 18 years of age.

Amnesty International is against the death penalty for any crime and is campaigning for its abolition.

Last year, the U.N. General Assembly voted 104 to 54 for an end to executions, this Bannister says is a clear sign the tide is turning against the practice, but he says there are still pockets of resistance.

"Many states such as Botswana, Vietnam, [and] China were adamantly against this motion, however the majority of the world's countries do not carry out executions now. It is important to note that only 24 countries actually executed last year this means vast swathes of the world are free from executions. In the Americas, only the United States carries out executions. In Europe, only Belarus carries out executions. In the 53 countries in Africa only seven carry out executions. So the world is winning the war against the death penalty, but we still see far too many executions," added Bannister.

Amnesty calls the taking of life by the state one of the most drastic acts a government can undertake. It urges all governments to follow the commitments made at the United Nations and abolish the death penalty.