Louis XVI: execution by guillotine, in 1793

Anthropology: Overview of Capital Punishment Around the World

Capital punishment (also known as the death penalty) is an execution of criminals that has been used by nearly all societies around the world since the beginning of civilizations. Offenders are punished with a death sentence and await execution on “death row”. Earlier this year, the Federal Death Row Abolition Act of 2021 was introduced by representatives to abolish executions at the federal level. The bill has not become law yet. In fact, there are still more than 27 American states where capital punishment is a legal punitive practice. Globally, there are 54 countries that retain capital punishment.

There is a continuing debate surrounding the death penalty and whether it should be a legal punitive measure or not. There are also various arguments regarding the correct treatment of convicted criminals. This article will overview the concept of capital punishment around the world and its cultural significance in anthropology.

The etymology and meaning of the term “capital punishment”

The term ‘capital’ has its origins in the Latin ‘capitalis’ from ‘caput’, which means “head”. Therefore, ‘capital’ means literally “of the head” or “regarding the head” and originally referred to the execution by beheading. However, capital punishment can take many forms, from stoning to lethal injections.

The term ‘capital punishment’ describes the execution of any individual who has been found guilty of certain major crimes.

Despite the fact that capital punishment has been abolished in 107 countries around the world, there are still 54 countries that retain capital punishment. Over 60% of the world’s population live in countries where the death penalty is a continuing punitive measure.

History of the death penalty

The death penalty has been used by nearly all societies throughout history. Historically, executions of criminals and dissidents involved very cruel and painful methods that would ensure severe pain and suffering. In pre-modern times, the death penalty was based on torture methods, such as boiling alive, impalement, mazzatello, blowing from a gun, schwedentrunk, scaphism, hanging, drawing, and quartering. These methods have been recorded throughout history. According to some records of primitive tribal practices, the death penalty has been a part of the justice system since the beginning of civilization.

Early death penalty laws

According to the Death Penalty Information Center website, the first established death penalty laws date to the Eighteenth Century B.C. of King Hammurabi of Babylon, which codified the death penalty for 25 different crimes. Death sentences were carried out by crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and impalement. Hanging became the most common form of execution in the tenth century A.D. in Britain, when William the Conqueror did not allow anyone to be executed for any crime, except in times of war. This lasted until the next century, when, under the reign of Henry VIII, as many as 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed. The most common practices of execution at the time were boiling, burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, and drawing and quartering. Capital offenses included, for example, marrying a Jew, not confessing to a crime, and treason (Death Penalty Information Center).

Nowadays, in most countries where the death penalty is an ongoing punitive measure, the practice is reserved for serious crimes, such as murder, terrorism, war crime, espionage, treason, or as part of military justice. Some countries carry the death penalty for sexual crimes, including rape, fornication, adultery, incest, sodomy, and bestiality. Similarly, some countries practice capital punishment for religious crimes. Moreover, some countries view drug trafficking and even drug possession as capital offenses. In countries, like China, human trafficking and serious cases of financial crimes and corruption are punished by the death penalty. Meanwhile, some militaries across the globe impose the death penalty for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny.

black and white illustration of Catherine Hayes burnt for the murder of her husband
“Catherine Hayes being burnt for the murder of her husband”, from William Jackson, The New and Complete Newgate Calendar (1795) (digitalpanopticon.org)

Capital crimes that result in the death penalty

Capital crimes are severe crimes that are punished with death. They vary across countries, but most capital crimes involve the intentional killing of another person, also known as first-degree murder. In some countries, simply killing someone may not qualify as a capital crime, but torturing someone before killing them would qualify as a capital crime. The examples of capital crimes include:

  • Crimes against humanity, such as genocide.
  • Murder
  • Drug trafficking – at least 35 countries of all 54 that retain capital punishment, use capital punishment for drug trafficking, drug dealing, drug possession, and related offenses. Countries in which people are regularly executed for drug-related offenses include China, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Vietnam.
  • Use of firearms
  • Terrorism
  • Treason (attacking a state authority)
  • Espionage
  • Crimes against the state
  • Political protests (Saudi Arabia)
  • Rape (China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Brunei, etc.)
  • Economic crimes (China, Iran)
  • Human trafficking (China)
  • Corruption (China, Iran)
  • Kidnapping (China, Bangladesh, the US states of Georgia and Idaho, etc.)
  • Separatism (China)
  • Unlawful sexual behavior (Saudi Arabia, Iran United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Brunei, Nigeria, etc.)
  • Religious offenses such as apostasy (abandonment of Islam)(Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan etc.)
  • Blasphemy (denying the fundamental beliefs of a religion) (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, certain states in Nigeria)
  • Moharebeh (piracy) (Iran)
  • Drinking alcohol (Iran)
  • Witchcraft and sorcery (Saudi Arabia)
  • Arson (Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, etc.)
  • Hirabah(piracy) /brigandage (highway robbery)/armed and/or aggravated robbery (Algeria, Iran, Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Ethiopia, the US state of Georgia etc.)

Global figures on death penalty

According to Amnesty International, in 2020 there have been 483 executions recorded in 18 countries. This is the lowest number of executions that have been recorded in the past decade. China remained the world’s leading country that carried out the highest number of executions in 2020. However, the number has not been published, therefore the true extent of the use of capital punishment in China is unknown. The data is classified as a state secret. However, it is believed that there have been thousands of executions carried out in China.

Countries that carry out the most executions in the world also include Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.  88% of all recorded executions took place in those four countries only. India, Oman, Qatar, and Taiwan have all resumed executions. There were no recorded executions in Belarus, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore, Sudan, and Bahrain (Amnesty International, 2021).

Globally, Amnesty International reported that at least 28,567 people were known to be on death sentence in 2020. Nine countries have confirmed death rows of more than a thousand prisoners. The nine countries were Iraq (7,900+), Pakistan (4,000+), Nigeria (2,700+), USA (2,485), Bangladesh (1,800+), Malaysia (1,314+), Vietnam (1,200+), Kenya (1,000+), Sri Lanka (1,000+). There was no data available for China, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia (Amnesty International, 2021).

Map representing the number of executions per country

Capital punishment in China

According to Amnesty’s figures, China regularly executes more people than all other countries combined. The death penalty is a legal practice that is commonly used for murder, drug trafficking, and financial crimes, as well as some other offenses. The exact numbers of executions and death sentences are not published because they are considered a state secret. It is believed that there have been more than a thousand executions carried out in China in 2020, and the numbers are estimated at about 2,400 executions every year.  In China, executions are carried out by lethal injection or shooting. The death penalty is also an active measure in most other East Asian countries, including Japan, North Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan (ROC).

Capital punishment in Iran

Iran is second on the list of countries with the highest numbers of executions in 2020. The country is believed to execute the most people per capita. Capital crimes in Iran include murder, rape, child molestation, homosexuality, pedophilia, drug trafficking, armed robbery, kidnapping, terrorism, burglary, incestuous relationships, fornication, prohibited sexual relationship, sodomy, sexual misconduct, prostitution, producing and publishing pornography, recidivist consumption of alcohol, extortion and more. In 2020, Iran carried out more than 246 executions and remained the country that carries out more executions than any other country except China. In Iran, by law, all executions must take place in a public place. The common methods of execution in 21st-century Iran are still hanging, stoning, falling from heights (for homosexuality), firing squad.

Death penalty in Egypt

Egypt is the third country with the highest number of executions in the world. In 2020, Egypt executed at least 107 people as a result of unfair trials and forced confessions. Amnesty International accused Egyptian authorities of carrying out executions on 57 people in October and November alone. Nine people were executed during the holy month of Ramadan.

Arguments in favor of capital punishment

The main question when discussing the issue of capital punishment is whether or not it is morally acceptable for the state to execute people, and if so, what circumstances should be undermining it. This subject has been debated for centuries. Some of the main arguments in favor of the death penalty highlight the following:

  • Retribution – all guilty people deserve to be punished. This argument states that offenders should be punished and suffer for committing the crime. In this case, a murderer deserves the death penalty.
  • Rehabilitation – although the death penalty itself does not allow for rehabilitation, because the offender does not return to society, prisoners repent and express remorse before the execution.
  • Prevention of re-offending – those who are executed cannot commit further crimes. Therefore, this lowers the number of re-offending.
  • Deterrence – one of the biggest arguments in favor of the death penalty is the argument that by executing criminals, less crime will occur because executions (especially the ones that are painful, humiliating, and public) create a sense of horror and will prevent others from committing similar crimes.

Arguments against capital punishment

On the other hand, many people believe that a state or society is not in a position to take someone else’s life or make a decision to do so. Some of the main arguments against the death penalty include:

  • Value of human life – those who are against capital punishment believe that human life is so valuable that even the worst murderers should not be deprived of that value. Some abolitionists, however, say that life should be preserved unless there is a very good reason not to.
  • Suffering is inhumane and degrading – capital punishment is viewed as wrong, inhumane, and cruel, as it is likely to cause enormous suffering.
  • Execution of the innocent – justice system is often flawed. Therefore, if capital punishment is made legal, it means that sooner or later innocent people will be deprived of their lives because of mistakes or flaws in the justice system. Those mistakes can be made in the process by the witnesses, prosecutors, and jurors.
  • The right to live – everyone has the right to live and execution violates that right.
  • It brutalizes society – Instead of deterring and preventing crime, it has been evidenced that the death penalty leads to the brutalization of society and an increase in the murder rate and other serious crimes. Public executions desensitize people, especially if they are carried out on a regular basis.
  • It’s too expensive – capital punishment costs an enormous amount of money in the USA. An average death penalty case cost in the U.S. is $1.26 million (Amnesty International, 2017).
  • It’s unnecessary – there is nothing to gain from the execution of another human being. If anything, the death penalty means that the prisoner will not have to spend the rest of their life in prison. This also takes away useful information that can be gained from researching offenders, which in turn can be used to prevent future crimes and therefore, reduce crime rates.
colored image of anti-death-penalty protestors
Anti-death-penalty activist Glenda Breeden holds a lamp while protesting against the execution of Lisa Montgomery on January 12, 2021 (businessinsider.com)

Cultural significance in anthropology

Anthropology of death and dying is a significant part of anthropological studies that examines the concept of death and the cultural variations in human behaviors in relation to death, dying, and the afterlife. The study of those aspects of every society is significant and useful also in the examination of the concept of the death penalty. For example, research on the topic, allows us to understand issues surrounding the death penalty, such as the fact that the death penalty disproportionately affects the poor (United Nations Human Rights, 2017), or the adverse mental health issues faced by families who have a loved one on death row (Death Penalty Information Center, 2020). Using the anthropological perspectives on the death penalty enables us to understand the practical and moral grounds involved in capital punishment in different cultures.


Amnesty International (2017) Death Penalty Cost. Available: (amnestyusa.org)

Amnesty International (2021) Death Penalty in 2020: Facts and Figures. Available: Amnesty International

Amnesty International Global Report (2021) Death Sentences and Executions. Available: amnesty.org

Death Penalty Information Center. Early History of the Death Penalty. Available: Death Penalty Information Center

Death Penalty Information Center (2020) Report Addresses Death Penalty-Row Family Members’ Barriers to Mental Health Care. Available: Death Penalty Information Center

United Nations Human Rights (2017) Death Penalty Disproportionately Affects the Poor, UN Rights Experts Warn. Available: OHCHR 

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