Executions of prisoners almost doubled last year – predominantly because of the Chinese government – according to a report by Amnesty International.
Death sentences handed down by China for crimes including tax evasion and bag-snatching represented three-quarters of the 2,390 executions carried out around the world, up from 1,252 in 2007. China's resumption of its death penalty programme comes after a dip in executions during the lead up to the Beijing Olympics that were held last year.
But other countries also showed a renewed commitment to state executions. Amnesty said that Iraq, which last year executed at least 34 people, is set to put to death another 128 prisoners, reportedly in batches of 20 at a time.
Japan executed the highest number of people for more than 30 years and Iran killed eight prisoners who were under 18 at the time of the offence. A further 8,864 prisoners were sentenced to death in 52 countries.
Human rights groups warned that the figures, the highest in five years, are worrying evidence of a political willingness to carry out executions in the face of strong international condemnation.
Amnesty International's secretary general, Irene Khan, said that, on average, seven prisoners were executed every day last year and that, because in some countries state executions were shrouded in secrecy, the figures only represented the minimum number of deaths. Amnesty suspects that in China the true figure runs into several thousand.
Ms Khan said: "The death penalty is the ultimate inhuman and degrading punishment. Beheadings, electrocutions, hangings, lethal injections, shootings and stonings have no place in the 21st century. It must be brought to an end."
Katherine O'Shea, a spokeswoman for the human rights group Reprieve, said: "We are dismayed the dramatic increase in executions worldwide. In the course of assisting British nationals on death row around the world, we have seen countless miscarriages of justice – particularly for people who cannot afford legal fees. Who knows how many more innocent people suffer this irreversible injustice every day?"
Amnesty described 13 countries as "hardcore" executioners who had implemented death penalties every year for the past five years. These are Bangladesh, Belarus, China, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Vietnam, the USA and Yemen. Methods used include beheading, hanging, stoning, lethal injection and electrocution.
But the focus of anti-death penalty campaigning remains targeted on China where 1,718 people were executed by lethal injection and firing squad last year. In 2007 it was reported that only 470 people were executed.
China revised its criminal law 10 years ago leaving 68 capital crimes on its statute books. Although the revised legislation lifted the death penalty for ordinary theft, a large number of non-violent economic offences remain capital offences. Those include the smuggling of cultural relics, precious metals and rare wildlife; counterfeiting currencies; fraudulent use of bills; tax fraud and the forgery of VAT invoices.
Chinese prisoners on death row are handcuffed with their feet shackled despite the prohibition under international prison standards on leg-irons and chains as instruments of restraint. Chinese lawyers also report that defendants on capital crime charges are normally brought to interviews at the detention centre in chains. In order to ensure that executions do not take place in public, the shooting of prisoners increasingly takes place within the prison grounds.
China is one of the five countries which accounted for 93 per cent of all executions. The other four are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA.
Amnesty said 2008 saw two worrying instances of countries bucking what had been a trend towards a reduction in the number of countries and jurisdictions still using the death penalty. St Kitts and Nevis carried out the first execution in the Caribbean for five years, while Liberia introduced capital punishment for robbery, terrorism and hijacking.
There are also concerns on death sentences imposed after unfair trials, and expresses concern about the risk of executing the innocent, noting that the US released four people from death row last year, taking to 130 the number of death row "exonerees" since 1973.
Ms Khan said: "The good news is that executions are only carried out by a small number of countries. The bad news is that hundreds of people continue to be sentenced to death in those that have not yet abolished the death penalty."