Rights group Amnesty International says China remains the world leader in executing people, while in other nations executions dropped by more than one-third in 2016.
Amnesty, which opposes the death penalty in all cases, listed China, Belarus and Vietnam as governments that shield execution data, saying the figures are a state secret. But Amnesty researcher William Nee told VOA the group has used media reports, government documents and conversations with people in China to form an assessment of the situation.
"There were fairly credible professors within the Chinese system who also said that over the last 10 years in which China has been trying to make reforms to its death penalty system, that it's gone from a five-digit figure, meaning above 10,000, to now a four-digit figure, in the thousands. And so we think that's probably the right ballpark," Nee said.
He added that Amnesty is calling on China to "come clean" and show the world how many people it is executing and sentencing to death each year.
Amnesty's data for 2016 included executions from 23 countries other than China.
Iran, Saudi Arabia
Iran ranked second on the list with at least 567 executions in 2016. Saudi Arabia was third with 154, followed by Iraq with 88 and Pakistan with 87.
While the worldwide total fell to 1,032, Amnesty said that was still above the average during the past 10 years.
Crimes punished by death included drug offenses, spying, kidnapping, rape, blasphemy, treason and espionage. The methods of execution Amnesty noted were beheading, hanging, lethal injection and shooting.
The United States had 20 recorded executions, its lowest since 1991. Last year was also the first time in a decade that the U.S. has not been among the top five in terms of total executions.
But Amnesty cautioned that the drop in the U.S. can partly be attributed to legal challenges over the way lethal injections are carried out, and that when those cases are resolved there could be a jump in the number of people put to death.
"The debate is clearly shifting," said Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty. "Politicians should steer clear of the ugly 'tough on crime' rhetoric that helped drive a spike in executions in the 1980s and 1990s. The death penalty is not going to make anyone safer."
Amnesty cited as positive gains in 2016 moves by Benin and Nauru to abolish the death penalty in all cases.