Amnesty International says the number of death penalty-related executions in a small number of countries is alarming, and runs counter to the global trend against carrying out executions. The rights group is calling for a worldwide moratorium on the punishment and eventually the end of what it says is a cruel and inhumane practice.

Amnesty says at least 676 people were executed worldwide last year.  But this figure does not include the number of executions in China, where the statistics are deemed a state secret. Its numbers are believed to be in the thousands.

Iran ranked second, with more than 360 executions. Amnesty warns that number also could be much higher, because it has credible information that ?substantial numbers? of executions are not officially acknowledged.

Amnesty International?s U.N. director José Luis Díaz told reporters that last year only 18 of the 193 U.N. member states carried out executions.

"A small, we believe, increasingly isolated number of countries are carrying out the bulk of the executions," said Diaz. "The states that year-on-year are consistently among the highest executioners include China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the U.S. and Yemen.?

The United States was ranked fifth on Amnesty?s list, having carried out 43 executions last year.  Díaz said it was the only country in the Americas and the only member of the Group of Eight (G8) leading economies to put prisoners to death in 2011.

Belarus was the only country in Europe or the former Soviet Union that carried out the death penalty last year. In the Asia-Pacific region, seven countries carried out executions and more than 800 new death sentences were imposed in 18 countries in that part of the world.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Amnesty said executions are rare and limited to a small number of countries - last year it was Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

In the Middle East, executions were up almost 50 percent over last year for Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which accounted for 99 percent of all recorded regional executions.

Amnesty?s Díaz said the death penalty is frequently applied during judicial proceedings that fail to meet international standards, and often for non-violent crimes.

"Adultery and sodomy in Iran, for example; blasphemy in Pakistan; sorcery in Saudi Arabia; the trafficking of human bones in the Republic of Congo; and drug offenses in over 10 countries - a number of these in Southeast Asia," he said. "We believe the death penalty should not be applied in any case, but even under international law, should be applied to the most serious cases, and I would challenge anyone to really justify these as being among the most serious cases for applying the death penalty.?

At the end of 2011, nearly 19,000 people were under a death sentence worldwide. 

Amnesty says it wants to see a moratorium on the death penalty, with a view to abolishing it completely. In the meantime, the organization would like to see countries reduce the number of crimes for which the penalty is applied.