China is believed to have carried out "thousands" of secret executions in 2012, placing Beijing among the top five executioners globally, an international rights group said on Wednesday.
London-based Amnesty International (AI) said that while the global trend in 2012 appeared to be towards ending the use of the death penalty, the figure of 1,722 newly imposed death sentences in 58 countries in 2012 didn't include Chinese data, which is not published by Beijing.
"China once again executed more people than the rest of the world put together," the group said, according to its own estimates.
The report named China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States as the top five executing countries, with Yemen not far behind.
"These figures do not include the thousands of executions that Amnesty International believes were carried out in China, where the numbers are kept secret," the group said in a statement on its website, coinciding with its annual report on the global use of the death penalty.
Mabel Au, director of the Hong Kong branch of Amnesty International, said the group had arrived at its estimate by combing official media reports of executions and adding up the figures.
"Back in 2008, 2009, they stopped making the figures public," Au said in an interview on Wednesday. "Apart from the figures we can get from some publicly available media, we estimate that the figures are much higher."
"I don't know why they are afraid to let people know about cases involving the death penalty, if the accused had a fair trial and there was sufficient evidence to convict," she said.
"There is no reason to keep this secret."
Guangzhou-based lawyer Sui Muqing said there is little popular support for the abolition of the death penalty in mainland China, however.
"My law firm once held an unofficial symposium, and we discovered that the proportion of lawyers who support abolition wasn't very high," Sui said. "Opinion in the wider population is still a long way from [supporting this], as well."
However, he said reform in China would be easily achieved by cutting the number of crimes which carry the death penalty, and altering guidelines to lessen its frequency.
"There is a bigger threat to a population when the death penalty is used by an authoritarian regime against those it regards as enemies," Sui said. But he said people believe it is a deterrent against the worst excesses of corrupt officials.
"Actually, the number of officials who get executed for corruption is extremely small," he said.
Meanwhile, Au said there had been no official reaction so far from Beijing.
"We have had a reaction to our criticism of organ harvesting for transplant from executed prisoners," she said. "They have said that they will try to reduce this in future."
"Our research at AI has found little good evidence to show that the death penalty has very little effect on crime rates," Au said, citing Hong Kong as an example. "Hong Kong abolished the death penalty in 1993, but the crime rate hasn't risen [since then]."
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said there is little sign that Beijing will follow suit, however.
"To judge from China's current situation, I can't see any sign that the death penalty will be abolished," Liu said. "They are just talking about setting limits on it."
"I don't think it would be easy, even if they wanted to [abolish it]," he said. "Some really high-profile cases have resulted in a death sentence."
According to AI, only one in 10 countries in the world still carries out executions.
"Their leaders should ask themselves why they are still applying a cruel and inhumane punishment that the rest of the world is leaving behind," Shetty said in the group's statement.
The group said there were some "disappointing setbacks" in the Asia Pacific region, with the resumption of executions in India, Japan, and Pakistan after long periods with no executions at all.
However, no death sentences were carried out in Vietnam. Singapore observed a moratorium on the death penalty and Mongolia made a commitment to abolish the death penalty entirely, AI said.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the crime, saying that it is the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment.
Shetty said there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the death penalty works as a special deterrent against crime.
“The real reason for the death penalty’s use can often be found elsewhere," he said.
"In 2012, we were once again very concerned to see countries executing for what appeared to be political purposes—either as a populist measure, or as an outright tool of repression."
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.