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US fifth in death penalty table

The United States was the only Western democracy to execute prisoners last year, even as an increasing number of US states were moving to abolish the death penalty, Amnesty International said.

America's 43 executions in 2011 ranked it fifth in the world for capital punishment, the rights group said in its annual review of worldwide death penalty trends. The US figure was down from 46 a year earlier.

"If you look at the company we're in globally, it's not the company we want to be in - China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq," Suzanne Nossell, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said.

The United States seems deeply divided on the issue. Texas governor Rick Perry was cheered at a Republican presidential candidates' debate last September when he defended his signature on 234 execution warrants over more than 10 years as being the "ultimate justice". Weeks later, young people rallied in person and online to protest against the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia for the 1991 murder of a police officer. In the intervening years, key witnesses for the prosecution had recanted or changed their stories.

"I think the debate on the issue may be nearing a tipping point in this country," Ms Nossell said. "I think we're seeing momentum at the state level, in the direction of waning support for the death penalty."

Illinois banned the death penalty last year and Oregon adopted a moratorium. Maryland and Connecticut are close to banning executions, Amnesty said, and more than 800,000 Californians signed petitions to put a referendum on the state ballot in November that would abolish the death penalty. However, 34 US states have the death penalty.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centre, which tracks US trends, said that last year 78 prisoners received death sentences, down from an average of more than 300 annually a few years ago. Mr Dieter attributed much of the decline to the introduction of DNA testing, which has exposed some mistaken convictions. With stronger defence tactics and appeals processes getting longer, US states also found it more expensive to pursue death penalty cases, he said.

The United States was the only member of the G8 group of developed nations to use the death penalty last year. Japan, which also retains capital punishment, recorded no executions for the first time in 19 years, Amnesty said.

A surge of executions last year in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen pushed the worldwide total higher than the year before, Amnesty said.

Although the global rate of executions has declined by about a third in the past decade, to 676 documented worldwide in 2011, some 18,750 people remained on death row at the end of the year in 20 nations, Amnesty added.

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