By Adrian Croft
LONDON (Reuters) - The number of executions carried out around the world jumped last year, largely due to a surge in use of the death penalty in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
The rights group said at least 676 people were executed in 20 countries in 2011 compared with 527 executions in 23 countries in 2010, a 28 percent increase.
Confirmed executions in the Middle East rose by almost 50 percent last year to 558, it said in an annual report on the death penalty.
Methods of execution used around the world included beheading, hanging, lethal injection and shooting.
However, Amnesty said China executed more people than the rest of the world put together. Data on the death penalty in China is a state secret and Amnesty International no longer publishes a figure for Chinese executions, but it said they were in the thousands.
Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary-general, said that when Amnesty was launched in 1961 only nine countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes, whereas last year only 20 countries carried out executions.
"It's a very important success story," he told Reuters, adding that the downside was that "a few countries continue to practice it in large numbers."
At least 1,923 people are known to have been sentenced to death in 63 countries in 2011, down from 2,024 in 2010, Amnesty's report said. At least 18,750 people were under sentence of death worldwide at the end of 2011, including 8,300 in Pakistan, it said.
After China, most executions last year were carried out in Iran, where at least 360 people were put to death compared with at least 252 in 2010, Saudi Arabia (at least 82 executions in 2011 compared with at least 27 in 2010), and Iraq (at least 68 executions compared with at least one), Amnesty said.
They were followed by the United States, with 43 executions in 2011 down from 46 a year earlier, and Yemen, at least 41 executions in 2011 down from 62 officially reported in 2010.
The United States was the only country in the Americas and the only member of the Group of Eight leading economies to execute prisoners in 2011, something Shetty described as "very shameful."
BELARUS ALONE IN EUROPE
Belarus was the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union countries to carry out executions in 2011 when it put two people to death. No executions were recorded in Japan last year for the first time in 19 years.
Shetty said the two biggest practitioners of the death penalty in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, were "yet to be touched" by the Arab Spring that has swept the region.
Violence in countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen made it particularly difficult to gather information on the use of the death penalty, the report said.
In one country in the vanguard of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, Amnesty said it had been assured by interim President Moncef Marzouki, a former Amnesty "prisoner of conscience", that he was committed to abolishing the death penalty. Nobody has been executed in Tunisia since 1991, and last year, for the first time since 2008, no new death sentences were handed down.
Amnesty said that in addition to the 360 executions officially acknowledged in Iran last year, information from credible sources suggested there were at least 274 other executions. More than three-quarters of executions there were for drug offences, it said.
"Iranian activists have expressed their fear that the government may use the cover of its 'war on drugs' to execute political opponents," it said.
The Iranian authorities continued to execute political prisoners, and to use the death penalty as a tool against minorities, it said.
The tripling of executions in Saudi Arabia last year reversed a downward trend of recent years, Amnesty said.
"Hundreds more people are believed to be under sentence of death, many of them foreign nationals convicted of drugs offences. Most of the prisoners did not receive a fair trial conforming to international standards," it said.
In 2011 Saudi Arabia applied the death penalty to offences ranging from murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping to sorcery and drugs-related crimes, the report said.
In Iraq, most death sentences were imposed on people convicted of belonging to or involvement in attacks by armed groups, including murder, kidnapping, rape or other violent crimes, Amnesty said.
(The story corrects increase in 2nd paragraph to 28 percent)
(Editing by Karolina Tagaris)