The number of death penalties carried out worldwide dropped last year according to an annual report released Friday by an Italian non-governmental organisation.
The global number dropped from 5,004 in 2011 to 3,967 in 2012, while the number of countries that abolished capital punishment rose from 155 to 158 over the same period, the Italian NGO Hands off Cain said.
"The significant decrease in death penalties is to a great extent thanks to China, where they dropped from 4,000 to 3,000 in just a year," Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said at a press conference to present the report.
In China, the number of death penalties has dropped 10 percent each year since 2007, when a new law meant death sentences had to go before the Supreme Court.
Despite the significant decrease, China remains the first country on the Hands off Cain blacklist, followed by Iran, which carried out 580 executions in 2012, and Iraq, where the number of death penalties almost doubled over the last year to 129.
Although 33 of the 40 countries that still have the death penalty are ruled by despots, some "liberal democracies" returned to capital punishment in 2012, the report said.
"While China seems to be progressively improving, some liberal democracies seem to be going the opposite way," said Sergio d'Elia, Hands off Cain secretary.
In 2011, of the "liberal democracies", just the United States and Taiwan carried out executions, while in 2012 Japan, Botswana and India began using capital punishment again after many years in which the practice was suspended.
This year, Indonesia joined them, carrying out its first death penalty for five years.
"Countries that are going backwards instead of going forwards are what worries us the most," Bonino said.
In the United States, abolitionists appear to be gaining ground: "In the last six years an American state has switched over to the right side every year," the NGO's president Marco Pannella said.
Bonino said she was disappointed that "we cannot call Europe a death penalty-free continent because of Belarus, where three executions took place in 2012".