Global executions fell dramatically by almost a third (31%) last year to the lowest figure for at least a decade, Amnesty International said in its annual global review of the death penalty.
The findings - contained in a new 54-page Amnesty report, Death Sentences and Executions 2018 - also show that there was a 50% drop in executions in Iran (where use of the death penalty is rife) following a change to its anti-drugs laws Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia also saw significant reductions in executions.
As a result, overall in 2018 execution figures fell globally from 993 (the known minimum figure) in 2017, to at least 690 (again, the known minimum figure) in 2018.
However, these statistics do not include China - the world's largest executioner where thousands are believed to be put to death every year - because the Chinese authorities refuse to release information on capital punishment and all data is classified as a state secret.
Amnesty's report - which comes amid a global outcry over Brunei's introduction of a penal code allowing death-by-stoning for same-sex sexual acts - shows that there were executions in 20 countries during 2018:
China (believed to be 1,000s), Iran (253+), Saudi Arabia (149), Vietnam (85+), Iraq (52+), Egypt (43+), USA (25), Japan (15), Pakistan (14+), Singapore (13), Somalia (13), South Sudan (7+), Belarus (4+), Yemen (4+), Afghanistan (3), Botswana (2), Sudan (2), Taiwan (1), Thailand (1), North Korea (an unknown number). Many countries do not release official information on capital punishment and several countries are thought to have executed many more than the minimum figures compiled here (indicated by a "+" symbol).
The methods of execution were: beheading (Saudi Arabia), electric chair (USA), lethal injection (China, Thailand, USA, Vietnam), shooting (Belarus, China, North Korea, Somalia, Taiwan, Yemen), and hanging (Afghanistan, Botswana, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore, South Sudan, Sudan).
Despite a significant decrease in the number of executions it carried out, the figures show that Iran still accounted for more than a third of the known executions recorded globally last year. Meanwhile, Amnesty documented increases in executions in Belarus, Japan, Singapore, South Sudan and the USA. Thailand carried out its first execution since 2009, while Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena declared he would resume executions after more than 40 years, posting an advert seeking executioners in February this year.
Amnesty is also concerned about a sharp spike in the number of death sentences imposed in some countries during 2018. In Iraq, the number quadrupled from at least 65 in 2017 to at least 271 last year. In Egypt, the number of death sentences handed down rose by more than 75%, from at least 402 in 2017, to at least 717 in 2018. This rise can be attributed to the Egyptian authorities' appalling track record of handing out mass death sentences after grossly unfair trials, often based on "confessions" obtained under torture and after flawed police investigations.
However, 2018's figures show that the death penalty overall is in long-term decline. For example, Burkina Faso adopted a new penal code that effectively abolished the death penalty last June. Also last year, Gambia and Malaysia both declared an official moratorium on executions, while in the US, the death penalty statute in the state of Washington was declared unconstitutional in October.
In all, at the end of 2018, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes while as many as 142 were "abolitionist" (having formally or informally abolished it). During the UN General Assembly in December, 121 countries - an unprecedented number - voted to support a global moratorium on the death penalty. Only 35 states voted against.
Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International's Secretary General, said:
"The dramatic global fall in executions proves that even the most unlikely countries are starting to change their ways and realise the death penalty is not the answer.
"This is a hopeful indication that it's only a matter of time before this cruel punishment is consigned to history, where it belongs.
"The positive news of 2018 has been marred by a small number of states who are shamefully determined to buck the trend.
"Japan, Singapore and South Sudan reported their highest levels of executions in years, and Thailand resumed executions after almost a decade - but these countries now form a dwindling minority. To all the countries that still resort to the death penalty, I challenge you to act boldly and put a stop to this abhorrent punishment now.
"Amnesty has been campaigning to stop executions around the world for more than 40 years - but with more than 19,000 people still languishing on death row worldwide, the struggle is far from over."
Noura Hussein, a young Sudanese woman, was sentenced to death in May 2018 for killing the man she was forced to marry as he tried to rape her. After global outrage, including major campaigning efforts from Amnesty, her death sentence was overturned and she was instead given a five-year prison sentence. Noura told Amnesty:
"I was in absolute shock when the judge told me I had been sentenced to death. I hadn't done anything to deserve to die. I couldn't believe the level of injustice - especially on women. I'd never imagined being executed before that moment. The first thing that came to my mind was, 'How do people feel when they are executed? What do they do?'. My case was especially hard as at the time of sentencing, my family had disowned me. I was alone dealing with the shock."
Hồ Duy Hải, convicted of theft and murder in Vietnam after he says he was tortured into signing a "confession", was sentenced to death in 2008. He remains on death row and at risk of execution. The stress of a pending death sentence has had a hugely detrimental impact on his family. His mother, Nguyễn Thị Loan, told Amnesty:
"It has been 11 years since he was arrested and our family was torn apart. I can no longer bear this pain. Just thinking about my son suffering behind bars hurts me so much. I would like the international community to help reunite my family. You are my only hope."