According to Amnesty International’s annual death penalty report for 2023, 16 countries carried out the 1,153 known executions last year, constituting the lowest number of executing countries on record with the organization but the highest recorded execution numbers since 2015. The 31% global increase in recorded executions is attributable to the 48% rise in executions in Iran (at least 853 executions), which accounted for 74% of recorded executions worldwide. Saudi Arabia came in second with 172 executions – a slight decrease from the 196 executions the previous year – accounting for 15% of the known global total. Following these two nations was Somalia (at least 38 executions), which accounted for executions in sub-Saharan Africa more than tripling, the United States (24 executions), and Iraq (at least 16 executions). 

The number of new death sentences increased by 20% to 2,428 in 2023, the highest total since 2018; however, difficulties accessing information across countries makes annual comparisons difficult. 52 countries handed down new death sentences, representing no change in the total number of countries from the year prior, although the identification of countries differed slightly with five countries with death sentences in 2022 having none in 2023 and five others imposed death sentences in 2023 after a hiatus. Commutations or pardons occurred in 27 countries, as well as 9 exonerations that occurred in Kenya (5), the U.S. (3), and Zimbabwe (1). 

Global Report: Death Sentences and Executions 2023 explains that recorded figures for executions and death sentences represent a minimum, with actual figures likely higher due to a lack of transparency in certain countries. Regarded as the world’s leading executioner, China, which is estimated to execute thousands annually, classifies capital punishment numbers as a state secret, as do North Korea and Vietnam. In its report, Amnesty explains that the use of the death penalty in several countries continues to violate international law with public executions, executions of juveniles or those with mental or intellectual disabilities, executions for crimes other than intentional killing, unfair trial proceedings, and coerced confessions obtained under torture or ill-treatment.  

In line with 2022, there was an increase (30%) in executions in the Middle East and North Africa region, primarily driven by Iran. Iran accounted for 80% of executions in the region and drove up the global execution total. “The huge spike in recorded executions was primarily down to Iran,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. “The Iranian authorities showed complete disregard for human life and ramped up executions for drug-related offences, further highlighting the discriminatory impact of the death penalty on Iran’s most marginalized and impoverished communities.”  

Executions for drug-related offenses, which do not meet the international “most serious crimes” threshold and are therefore unlawful, saw a dramatic 89% increase from 2022 and constituted 56% of all known executions in Iran. In fact, Amnesty reported that 545 of the 853 recorded executions were unlawful as they were carried out for offenses other than intentional killing; aside from drug-related offenses, people were unlawfully executed for offenses such as robbery, espionage, possession of arms, or acts of resistance. At least seven people were executed for participating in nationwide protests, including six who participated in “Women, Life, Freedom” protests from September to December 2022. The Baluch minority were disproportionately represented amongst those executed, accounting for 20% of all executions despite comprising only 5% of Iran’s population. Sixty-one percent of executions resulted from verdicts handed down by the Revolutionary Courts, while 37% of executions stemmed from verdicts handed down by criminal courts. 

Worldwide efforts towards abolition continued, with abolition bills reviewed in the parliaments of Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, and Zimbabwe. The elimination of the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia was enacted, as was Pakistan’s elimination of the death penalty for drug-related offenses. 


Press Release, Global: Executions Soar to Highest Number in Almost a Decade, Amnesty International, May 28, 2024; Death Sentences and Executions in 2023, Amnesty International, May 292024