China biggest user of death penalty
Beijing - China - which London said put to death a British national convicted on drugs charges on Tuesday - executes more prisoners than the rest of the world combined, rights groups say.
In its execution order for the Briton, Akmal Shaikh, China's Supreme Court reiterated the government's position that capital punishment is essential to instill fear and prevent crime.
According to the London-based rights group Amnesty International, of the 2 400 executions recorded around the world last year, more than 1 700 of them took place in China, according to public press reports.
But activists say that figure may only be the tip of the iceberg as the number of people put to death in China is a closely guarded state secret, and fact could be far higher.
"There are a number of problems and uncertainties in the way the death penalty process is carried out," Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based manager of the rights group Dui Hua, told AFP.
"One of the major problems is that it is a very untransparent system."
Dui Hua has been monitoring the use of the death penalty in China and estimates that about 5 000 executions will be carried out in the country in 2009, down from about 7 000 in 2007.
These numbers are down from more than 10 000 a year a decade ago, with China officially seeking to reduce the numbers of people executed in an effort to eventually abolish capital punishment, Rosenzweig said.
The traditional method of execution is a bullet to the back of the head, but in recent years, Chinese localities have increasingly adopted - out of "humanitarian" concerns - the use of lethal injections.
In 2007, China's highest court took over the power to issue execution orders from provincial high courts in an effort to exert more control over the number of inmates put to death.
According to Amnesty, there are 68 crimes in China that are punishable by death, including non-violent offences such as fraud, bribery and drugs charges.
In recent years, people in China have been executed for tax fraud, stealing VAT receipts, damaging electric power facilities, selling counterfeit medicine, embezzlement, accepting bribes and drugs offences, Amnesty said.