updated 7/24/2008 11:03:28 AM ET 2008-07-24T15:03:28

Executions jumped by a third in Iran and quadrupled in Saudi Arabia last year, causing the total number of executions around the world to rise yet again in 2007, a human rights group reported Thursday. It said China remained far in front as the world’s top executioner.

The Rome-based Hands Off Cain, which campaigns to stop the death penalty, said that while countries were increasingly renouncing the death penalty, more people were put to death in 2007 than in either of the previous two years.

In all, the number of executions increased last year to at least 5,851, compared with 5,635 in 2006 and 5,494 in 2005, the group said in its annual report.

The United States remained the only country in the Americas that carried out death sentences in 2007, but the country hit a 13-year low in the overall number of executions it performed — putting 42 people to death, 11 less than in 2006.

The gradual trend of abolishing capital punishment continued, with 49 countries retaining the death penalty, compared with 51 in 2006 and 54 in 2005. Only 26 countries that have capital punishment on their books actually used it in 2007, down from 28 in 2006, the report said.

Reduction in China death sentences?
China alone accounted for at least 5,000 executions, the rights group estimated, based on reports by the media and other human rights groups. The exact number of executions in China remains a state secret. This was the same estimate the group gave for China last year.

However, Hands Off Cain said there were indications of a reduction in the number of death sentences in China.

Citing reports by magistrates, researchers and rights groups, the group said death sentences issued by Chinese courts may have dropped by up to 30 percent in 2007. China’s own Supreme People’s Court has said it rejected 15 percent of all death sentences reviewed in the first half of this year.

In Iran, at least 355 people were put to death last year, compared with 215 in 2006, the group said, adding that the figure may be even higher because Tehran does not publish official statistics.

Saudi Arabia carried out 166 executions, compared with 39 a year earlier, the report said.

Hands Off Cain said both Iran and Saudi Arabia executed minors, in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Pakistan also continued an upward trend, executing at least 134 people.

The report attributed the drop in executions in the United States to the judicial debate surrounding lethal injections. Executions were on hold around the United States for more than seven months until the U.S. Supreme Court in April rejected an appeal from two Kentucky prisoners who argued the method was unconstitutionally cruel.

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