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Saudi Arabia caught the world's attention last week when it executed 47 people. The country had already seen a sharp increase in the use of the death penalty in 2015. NPR's Jackie Northam reports that it wasn't the only country that carried out a lot more executions last year.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: There are about two dozen countries that have the death penalty. Some rarely carry out or have a moratorium on executions. And then you have the other extreme. A handful of countries accelerated their rate of executions in 2015.
RICHARD CLARK: Executions have risen 70 percent over 2014.
NORTHAM: Seventy percent - seven zero?
CLARK: Seven zero, yeah.
NORTHAM: Richard Clark, the founder of Capital Punishment U.K., which charts executions around the world, says there was a spike in the number of executions in a few countries last year. He says Iran hanged at least 750 people - 270 more people than the previous year. Other human rights organizations say it could be as high as 1,000 people. But it's hard to know because Iran is one of the countries that doesn't give out a lot of information. Another is China, which might be the leader in executions says Maya Foa with Reprieve, a human rights organization based in London.
MAYA FOA: In China, executions are a state secret and so not only do they not publicly disclose when and where and how many executions take place, very often, as we understand it, they don't even tell family members. So it's very, very hard to get accurate figures. We do know that the numbers are in the thousands very often.
NORTHAM: We know executions in Pakistan are on the rise. It lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in December 2014 after a Taliban attack killed 148 people, mostly children. Last year, it executed more than 300 people. Saroop Ijaz is a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. He says the government brought back the death penalty as a way to fight terrorism.
SAROOP IJAZ: And as it turns out, out of the more than 300 people that Pakistan has executed, only a very small minority are people who have been convicted of terrorism offenses.
NORTHAM: Ijaz says there are now at least 27 offenses for which you can be put to death in Pakistan, including murder, treason and blasphemy. He says the government is marketing the death penalty as a cure for the complex security situation that Pakistan faces.
IJAZ: There is this national security state narrative that the Pakistan government has constructed which is, you know, being tough and going to war - that entire rhetoric.
NORTHAM: Similarly, Saudi Arabia says most of people it executed last week were terrorists. But Clark with Capital Punishment U.K. says that wasn't the case last year.
CLARK: Saudi Arabia went up from 92 in 2014 to 155 in 2015. In 2015, the Saudi executions were pretty normal - drugs and murder or rape.
NORTHAM: For its part, the U.S. went the other way. Maya Foa with Reprieve says last year, the U.S. executed 28 people, down from 35 people the previous year.
FOA: We had fewer executions in the U.S. than we'd seen for the last 27 years, and that's in large part because of issues with the lethal injection and manufacturers not wanting to sell medicines for the purpose of executions.
NORTHAM: And there were a few nations that decided last year to abolish the death penalty, including Madagascar, Fiji and Suriname. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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