Amnesty International’s latest global report on the death penalty, "Death Sentences and Executions: 2013," finds that a number of nations in the Middle East have fueled a spike in global figures with a spree of executions. Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia alone accounted for almost 80% of all reported executions carried out worldwide in 2013 -- excluding China, where official figures are secret. The upsurge in executions in Iran and Iraq accounts for a global jump of nearly 15% from 2012. Across the Middle East and North Africa, at least 638 people were executed in 2013 -- mostly by beheadings, hangings or firing squad. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, capital punishment was imposed for drug offenses. In Saudi Arabia, one man was executed for "adultery." Vaguely worded offenses, such as moharebeh ("enmity against God"), were used in Iran to repress the political activities of ethnic minorities such as the Kurds.

"The virtual killing sprees we saw in countries like Iran and Iraq were shameful," said Amnesty's secretary general Salil Shetty. "But those states who cling to the death penalty are on the wrong side of history and are, in fact, growing more and more isolated. Only a small number of countries carried out the vast majority of these senseless state-sponsored killings. They can’t undo the overall progress already made towards abolition."

The number of executions in Iran (at least 369) and Iraq (169) saw those two countries take second and third place as global executioners, although China continued to top the list. While the number of executions in China is kept secret, Amnesty believes thousands are put to death there every year -- including for drug offenses. Saudi Arabia (79) and the USA (39) took fourth and fifth place, with Somalia (34) in sixth. Excluding China, at least 778 executions are known to have been carried out in 2013, compared to 682 in 2012. People were executed in a total of 22 countries in 2013, one more than in the year before. Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Vietnam all resumed the death penalty last year after having suspended its implementation for a period.

Despite last year's surge, there has been a steady decline in the number of countries using the death penalty over the last 20 years. Nonetheless, at least 23,392 people were facing death sentences worldwide at the end of 2013.