Amnesty International reports the number of executions around the world continued to fall last year, with a 4 percent drop in executions and a significant decline in the number of new death sentences.
In an annual report on executions and the death penalty released early Thursday in London, the human rights organization said there were at least 993 executions in 23 countries last year, down 4 percent from 1,032 in 2016 and down 39 percent from 1,634 in 2015.
The vast majority of global executions recorded last year took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan, according to the report.
China remained the world's top executioner, the rights group said. Though the precise number of executions in China remains unknown, Amnesty said "thousands of executions [are] believed to have been carried out" in the country last year.
Four countries — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan — accounted for 84 percent of the reported executions. Iran had at least 507 executions, Saudi Arabia at least 146, Iraq at least 125 and Pakistan at least 60, Amnesty said.
Five other countries — Botswana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Sudan and Taiwan reported no executions.
Amnesty International said the drop in executions was driven by growing aversion to the death penalty around the world, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa where 20 countries have abolished the practice and others are taking steps to repeal it.
"Developments across sub-Saharan Africa in 2017 exemplified the positive trend recorded globally, with Amnesty International's research pointing to a further decrease in the global use of the death penalty in 2017," said the report.
In the United States, the only Western country with the death penalty, there were 23 executions and 42 death sentences. Though slightly higher than 2016, both figures are in line with historically low trends seen in recent years, Amnesty said.
In Europe and Central Asia, Belarus was the only country to execute people, with at least two executions and at least four death sentences, Amnesty said.
The global trend toward abolishing the death penalty continued.
Guinea and Mongolia expunged the death penalty for all crimes. Guinea became the 20th sub-Saharan country to abolish the punishment for all crimes. Kenya ended mandatory death penalty for murder while Burkina Faso and Chad took steps to repeal the practice.
"The progress in sub-Saharan Africa reinforced its position as a beacon of hope for abolition," Amnesty International's Secretary-General Salil Shetty said in a statement. "The leadership of countries in this region gives fresh hope that the abolition of the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is within reach."
At the end of 2017, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes and 142 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice, according to Amnesty.