China remained the world’s top executioner, as global use of the death penalty skyrocketed worldwide in 2015, according to an annual report by the London-based rights group Amnesty International (AI).
"Amnesty International believes that thousands of people were put to death and thousands of death sentences were imposed in 2015," the group said in a statement on Thursday.
"There are signs that the number of executions in China has decreased in recent years, but the secrecy around the death penalty makes this impossible to confirm for certain," it said.
The group's secretary general Salil Shetty told reporters earlier this week "our estimate [for China] is that they execute as much as the rest of the world," the New York Times reported.
The AI report said 2015 saw a dramatic global rise in the number of executions, with more people put to death than at any point in the last 25 years.
It blamed the surge on executions carried out by Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The group said it had recorded a total of 1,634 people executed in 2015, an increase of more than 50 percent compared to the figure for the previous year and the highest number it had recorded since 1989.
The figure, however, excluded executions in China, where death penalty statistics are treated as a state secret.
AI China researcher Patrick Poon told RFA that Beijing likely considers the numbers a secret because they are embarrassingly high.
"We believe that China doesn't want to make public its execution figures, because they are probably very high indeed," Poon said. "They don't dare to publish them."
"Otherwise, it's hard to understand why they don't make the numbers public," he said.
Last August, China eliminated the death penalty in cases involving nine different crimes including smuggling weapons or explosives, nuclear materials or fake currency, as well as counterfeiting currency.
Financial fraud, organized prostitution, forced prostitution and obstructing the military in the course of their duty, as well as "spreading rumors and stirring up the masses in time of war" were also removed from the list of capital crimes.
The move also made it harder for those given a death sentence with reprieve, which is typically commuted to 10-15 years' imprisonment with good behavior, to eventually be executed.
Poon welcomed the recent reforms, but said they don't go far enough.
"There are still capital crimes on the statute books, which leaves open the possibility that forced confessions will be used ... during the investigation or that evidence will be gained through the use of torture," he said.
"This is something that is very worrying indeed," he said.
‘Unfair and not objective’
Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Thursday that the AI report was "unfair and not objective," and that China "has no interest in commenting on it."
Commentators have previously told RFA that the death penalty has broad public support in China.
Anhui-based dissident Shen Liangqing said he is personally in favor of it, but only if administered fairly.
"The rules surrounding the death penalty vary from country to country, and while EU countries have abolished it, a lot of U.S. states haven't," he said.
"Personally, I don't support abolishing the death penalty for very serious crimes causing loss of life to many people," Shen said. "The problem in China is to do with impartiality in the judicial system."
Rights groups have also raised concerns over the use of harvested organs from executed prisoners.
Government figures revealed that some 65 percent of transplant organs came from executed prisoners in 2009.
And while the ruling Chinese Communist Party banned the practice at the start of 2015, activists say the measures may be largely cosmetic, as some 300,000 patients are placed on waiting lists for organs every year in China.
Human rights researchers have warned that "voluntary" donations can still be coerced out of death row prisoners, who are under the total control of the authorities.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.