- Some 18,750 people faced death sentences in 2011, while at least 676 people were executed
- Countries in the Middle East recorded a steep rise -- 50% up compared to previous year
- Survey did not include "thousands" executed in China, as it does not release figures
- United States the only member of the G8 group of leading economies to execute prisoners
Only 10% of countries carried out executions last year, but those employing the death penalty are doing so at an alarming rate, a new report says.
According to Amnesty International's annual review of death sentences and executions, the number of countries using capital punishment in 2011 was 20, a decrease of more than a third compared to 10 years ago.
Some 18,750 people faced death sentences at the end of 2011, while at least 676 people were executed across the world, the report said.
People were sentenced to death for a range of offenses including adultery and sodomy in Iran, blasphemy in Pakistan and drug offenses in around 10 countries. Amnesty claims many of these cases would not have involved fair trials by international standards, and that "confessions" are often extracted through the use of torture and other methods of coercion.
"The vast majority of countries have moved away from using the death penalty," said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
"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. "
Countries in the Middle East recorded a steep rise in executions last year -- 50% up compared to the previous year -- with Saudi Arabia (estimated to be 82), Iran (at least 360), Yemen (at least 41) and Iraq (at least 68) responsible for 99% of all recorded cases in the region. Amnesty added that the true extent of Iran's record was unknown due to a lack of credible official figures.
Likewise the report did not include what it described were "the thousands of executions that Amnesty International believes were carried out in China, where the numbers are suppressed."
It claimed thousands of people were executed in China in 2011, more than the rest of the world put together.
The rights group says it has stopped publishing figures it collects from public sources in China, as "these are likely to grossly underestimate the true number."
Chinese authorities could not be immediately reached for comment.
Meanwhile, the United States was the only member of the G8 group of leading economies to execute prisoners -- 43 in 2011, the report said. Europe and former Soviet countries were "capital punishment-free," apart from Belarus where two people were executed last year.
"Even among the small group of countries that executed in 2011, we can see gradual progress," Shetty added.
"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."