Four of the world’s five top executioners in 2020 were Middle East states, Amnesty International says.
Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia accounted for 88% of the 483 reported executions worldwide, according to a report by the human rights group.
It accuses them of displaying “a ruthless and chilling persistence” in putting people to death despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The global total was the lowest in a decade, but it did not include China.
China is believed to execute thousands of people each year, but the true extent of its use of the death penalty is unknown as the data is a state secret.
The overall number of executions recorded in the Middle East and North Africa fell from 579 in 2019 to 437 in 2020, Amnesty International said on Wednesday in its annual report on use of the death penalty.
That was largely driven by a 85% drop in recorded executions in Saudi Arabia, where 27 took place, and a 50% reduction in Iraq, which carried out 45.
However, the report says the decreases were overshadowed by a 300% rise in Egypt, which put 107 people to death and became the world’s third most frequent executioner.
Twenty-three of those people were convicted in cases relating to political violence, after what Amnesty said were grossly unfair trials marred by forced “confessions” and other violations.
There was also a spike of 57 executions in October and November following a botched break-out attempt at al-Aqrab prison in which several police officers and death-row inmates died.
Iran, which carried out at least 246 executions, remained in second place globally behind China.
Amnesty said Iranian authorities increasingly used the death penalty as “a weapon of political repression” against dissidents, protesters and members of ethnic minority groups.
They also executed three people for crimes that occurred when they were below the age of 18, in violation of international humanitarian law.
Amnesty also accused Qatar of taking “an alarming step backwards” by carrying out its first execution in 20 years. A Nepali man convicted of murder was shot by firing squad last May.
A government body in Saudi Arabia attributed the sharp decline in executions there in part to “a moratorium on the death penalty in drug-related offences”. But Amnesty said it might also have been due to a desire by the kingdom to avoid criticism over the issue overshadowing its G20 presidency.
Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s Middle East director, said countries in the region had “displayed a ruthless and chilling persistence in carrying out plans to put people to death even during a year when most of the world was focused on protecting people’s lives from a deadly virus”.
“Despite a clear global trend showing most countries moving away from use of the death penalty, [they] make up the majority of an increasingly isolated group of entrenched executioners out of step with the rest of the world, fuelling the vast majority of executions worldwide,” she added.