A surge of executions last year in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen pushed the worldwide total higher than the year before, the global anti-death penalty group Amnesty International announced Monday.
The United States remains near the top of the global list of nations carrying out executions, ranked fifth.
Although the global rate of executions has declined by about a third in the past decade, to 676 documented worldwide in 2011, some 18,750 people remained on death row at the end of the year in 20 nations, Amnesty International said in its annual review of worldwide trends.
"We do not believe that governments should be in the business of executing citizens. That's an inappropriate role for the government to play, regardless of the circumstances," Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, told The Associated Press.
Various countries subject a wide array of crimes to capital punishment, including adultery, sodomy and religious offenses such as apostasy or "treason against God" in Iran, blasphemy in Pakistan, "sorcery" in Saudi Arabia, trafficking in human bones in the Republic of Congo, and economic crimes in China including selling fake drugs or tainted foods or soliciting deceptive organ transplantation.
China executes thousands of people annually, many more than the rest of the world put together. Figures are a state secret, Amnesty International said, and it has stopped compiling them from public sources because those numbers lead to underreporting and a gross underestimate of the true total.
Amnesty International challenged Beijing to publish figures on sentencing and executions "to confirm their claims that various changes in law and practice have led to a significant reduction in the use of the death penalty over the last four years," the group said.
The wave of executions in the Middle East -- a 50 percent regional increase -- pushed the global total higher for 2011, with 149 executions worldwide more than in 2010.
Iran executed at least 360 people, many of them under harsh new anti-drug laws introduced last year. Iranian executions are usually conducted by hanging, sometimes in public from a construction crane, which Amnesty said led the Japanese construction equipment company Tadano to cut off exports of cranes to Iran last July.
Iraq executed 68 people, Amnesty found. "In Iraq, that country has transitioned and the U.S. has pulled out. Most of those executed have been Sunni Muslims and suspected members of armed groups," Nossel told the AP.
Saddam Hussein's former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, is on death row in Iraq scheduled for execution this year.
Saudi Arabia executed at least 82; and Yemen executed at least 41.
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen accounted for 99 percent of the executions in the Middle East and North Africa, Amnesty said.
Although all the Mideast and North African nations had very different governments and political dynamics, the 50-percent increase in executions came against the backdrop of the Arab Spring protests and upheaval.
Chaos in Libya meant that Amnesty was unable to account for any legal executions, though torture, detention and summary killings by pro-government loyalists and by opposition militias who ousted Moammar Gadhafi's regime are widely reported. Gadhafi himself appears to have been videotaped being shot to death by members of a crowd that apprehended him.
Bahrain, also convulsed by political protests, did not execute anyone in 2011, Amnesty noted.
Amnesty recorded no executions by stoning anywhere in the world in 2011.
The rights group criticized Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia for staging public executions.
The United States was the only G-8 nation to employ the death penalty last year. Japan, which also retains capital punishment, recorded no executions for the first time in 19 years, Amnesty reported.
Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq ranked second through fourth on Amnesty's list of total executions.
The United States was ranked fifth, with 43 executions in 2011. Although the United States is the only nation in the Americas to execute prisoners, it is on the decline. Amnesty said. Executions were down from 46 a year earlier and 71 back in 2002.
Yemen ranked sixth on Amnesty's list with at least 41 executions, North Korea next with at least 30, and Somalia was eighth with 10 executions, Amnesty reported.
The only European or former Soviet nation to carry out executions in 2011 was Belarus, putting two men to death, Amnesty said.
India conducted no executions for the seventh year in a row and Pakistan none for a third year, Amnesty said.
Sri Lanka also had no executions in 2011, but 362 people were on death row. Sri Lanka has sought to hire a hangman and received several applications for the job, Amnesty quoted Sri Lanka's Treasury department as reporting.
Amnesty saw significant progress in sub-Saharan Africa, where only 14 of 49 nations retain the death penalty.
Benin moved to ratify a U.N. treaty abolishing capital punishment last year. Sierra Leone declared a moratorium on executions, Nigeria confirmed it had one, and Ghana's constitutional commission recommended abolition.
Amnesty counted a total of 22 African executions in the nations of Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.