Amnesty International says the number of recorded executions rose steeply in the Middle East, driven by growing numbers in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen. There were 149 more executions in the region compared to 2010, and Iran and Saudi Arabia alone can account for the increase.

Amnesty International reports that 18,750 people remained under death sentence at the close of 2011, and at least 676 people were executed that year. This figure, according to the rights group, does not include the thousands of executions which they believe were carried out in China without public acknowledgement, nor does it reflect the true extent of Iran’s use of the death penalty. Amnesty International believes that Iran is failing to report a substantial number of executions carried out in its prisons.

According to the report, the number of executions in the Middle East increased by 50 percent in 2011, with 68 people executed in Iraq, at least 360 in Iran, at least 82 in Saudi Arabia and at least 41 in Yemen.

Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco and Qatar still issued death sentences but continued to refrain from carrying them out.

Salil Shetty, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, reports that the vast majority of countries have stopped the use of the death penalty, and says: “Our message to the leaders of the isolated minority of countries that continue to execute is clear: you are out of step with the rest of the world on this issue and it is time you took steps to end this most cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment."

Amnesty International’s report also indicates that the United States remained the only country in the Americas and the only one in the G8 group of leading economies to carry out executions in 2011. Forty-three people were reportedly executed in the U.S. last year.

The report also indicates that in all of Europe and the former Soviet Union, there were only two executions in 2011, in Belarus.

The report indicates that the people who were sentenced to death or executed in 2011 did not in most cases receive a fair trial by international standards, adding that in many countries such as China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, the accused were forced to confess under torture.

The report notes, however, that some level of progress has been achieved, even in countries that continue to execute people. Amnesty International reports that the Chinese government eliminated the death penalty for “13 mainly ‘white collar’ crimes, and measures were also put forward to the National People’s Congress to reduce the number of cases of torture in detention, strengthen the role of defence lawyers and ensure suspects in capital cases are represented by a lawyer.”

The number of executions in the U.S. reportedly has fallen dramatically compared to a decade ago, and a moratorium has been announced in the state of Oregon. Many victims of violent crimes from across the U.S. have spoken out against the death penalty.

The Amnesty International Secretary General goes on to conclude: "Even among the small group of countries that executed in 2011, we can see gradual progress. These are small steps but such incremental measures have been shown ultimately to lead to the end of the death penalty. It is not going to happen overnight, but we are determined that we will see the day when the death penalty is consigned to history."