Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now

Six countries with the most executions and Ireland's diplomatic links to them

Although state killings are legal in some countries, there remains a lot of secrecy around the figures recording instances of it.

2016 HAS BEEN labelled a deadly year for celebrities and musical icons – but there is also worry around the direction the world is taking towards state sponsored killings.

Last year, there was a 54% increase in the number of executions per year – 1,634 in 2015 compared to 1,061 in 2014. Amnesty International said that this was the highest number of executions since 1989.

While this year the numbers are lower among the six worst offenders (some based on estimations), there have been increases and policy changes elsewhere.

For context, the last known execution in Ireland was in 1954, executions were abolished for ‘ordinary murders’ in 1964, and executions for the murder of gardaí, diplomats and prison officers were abolished in 1990.

1. China, estimated at over 1000

Philippines China Executions The younger sister of a convicted drug trafficker in China, is surrounded by reporters after learning that her sister Sally was executed along with two others through lethal injection in China. Source: BULLIT MARQUEZ

The number of executions is a state secret, and the executions reported in the media are likely to be a fraction of those that are carried out. Despite the ambiguity over exact figures, it’s estimated that China executes more people than any other country in the world.

Executions are carried out through lethal injections and firing squads in prisons or in mobile “death vans”, where prisoners are reportedly strapped to an electric-powered stretcher and injected with lethal drugs. The use of these vans has been decreasing since the late 2000s due to the expense of maintaining the vans.

Relations between Ireland and China are very friendly – in the past four years there have been four state visits from Ireland to China and vice versa.

Bilateral trade between Ireland and China is worth over €8 billion each year. Ireland’s priority sectors for trade with China include agriculture, education, financial services, culture, and tourism.

This December, Ireland became the 17th jurisdiction to link up with the People’s Bank of China to allow the Central Bank of Ireland to invest in China’s domestic bonds and equity markets.

2. Iran, over 534

France Iran French activists protest against a state visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Paris in January 2016. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The actual number of executions is likely to be higher, given the government’s underreporting of executions and the holding of secret executions. Research by death penalty justice group Reprieve, shows that at least 211 of the hangings that took place in 2016 were for drugs offences, in violation of international law.

Since the lifting of western sanctions in January, European countries have been courting Iran – including Ireland, which have been considering opening up an Irish embassy in Tehran in the near future.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said that an embassy in Tehran would be a “gamechanger” and would open up access for Ireland to a market of a quarter of a billion people.

3. Saudi Arabia, 154

Executions in Saudi Arabia Demonstrators protest outside the Saudi Embassy in London, following Saudi Arabia's execution of 47 prisoners in one day, including a top Shiite cleric. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

This execution total is close to last year’s record high of 158. Among those executed this year were at least four juveniles who were killed as part of a mass execution of 47 people in January. One of them, Ali al-Ribh, was arrested in school, tortured into a false ‘confession’ to protest-related charges, and executed.

In 2014, on a state visit to the kingdom, Enda Kenny congratulated Saudi Arabia’s election to the United Nations’s human rights council and said that Ireland “obviously will work with Saudi Arabia in terms of human rights and their participation on the council”.

4. Iraq, over 101

Ongoing armed conflict makes it impossible to obtain exact figures for Iraq, but Reprieve was able to establish that at least 101 executions took place in 2016. However, based on unconfirmed media reports, the real figure may be more than double this total.

5. Pakistan, 87

Making a difference

A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article.

Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can make sure we can keep reliable, meaningful news open to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.

Pakistan Executions Safia Bano displays the picture of her husband Imdad Ali, a death row prisoner, in Burewala, central Pakistan. Source: Asghar Ali

According to figures gathered by Reprieve, there had been 87 executions in 2016 as of December 6. This was a decrease since 2015, which saw Pakistan embark on an unprecedented execution spree, and leapfrog Saudi Arabia to become the world’s third most prolific executioner. The country lifted a six-year moratorium on the execution of civilians in December 2014.

6. US, 20

Executions Numbers Death chamber at the state prison in Jackson, Georgia. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The most prolific executioner among US states was Georgia, which executed nine people this year. Execution numbers fell to a record low amid growing concerns about the effectiveness of capital punishment.

2016 saw public support for the death penalty fall to under 50%, death sentences drop to a record low and every FDA-approved pharmaceutical company oppose the misuse of medicines in lethal injections, causing many states to put executions on hold.


Because of the secrecy around state executions figures, it’s difficult to measure whether the rate is falling or rising.

The number of deaths is also not the only way of measuring how the world deals with executions

There is also concern about countries that wish to restore the death penalty – including the Philippine’s president Rodrigo Duterte, who pledged to bring it back and to execute “five or six” criminals daily.

Others of particular concern are Bahrain – where several protesters await execution on the basis of forced ‘confessions’ – and Egypt. Reprieve has established that in the last three years, the Egyptian judiciary has sentenced 1,857 to death.

In addition, 2016 saw alarming proposals in Kuwait to lower to 16 the age at which people can be sentenced to death.

Read: Crime, murder and the end of the Civil War: The story of the first man hanged by the Irish Free State

Read: 50% more people were executed last year than in 2014

About the author:

Read next: