London (AFP) - Egypt and Nigeria accounted for an "alarming rise" in the number of death sentences handed out around the world in 2014, often on the back of security concerns, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
The London-based rights watchdog also criticised Pakistan for lifting a moratorium on the execution of civilians in the wake of the Peshawar school massacre by Taliban militants in December.
"It's a very worrying development in 2014 that there has been this increase in death sentences," Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty's director of global issues, told AFP at the launch of a report on capital punishment.
"The death penalty isn't justice," she said.
Titled "Alarming rise in death sentences as governments resorted to capital punishment to combat crime and terrorism", the report recorded 2,466 death sentences during last year -- a 28-percent increase from 2013.
The number of executions -- 607 -- went down by 22 percent however from the previous year, although Amnesty warned these numbers did not count executions in China where death sentences are kept secret.
"There is no evidence that the death penalty is any more of a deterrent to violent crime or terrorism than other forms of punishment," Gaughran said.
China had the highest number of executions in the world, followed by Iran (289, as well as at least 454 not acknowledged by the authorities), Saudi Arabia (90), Iraq (61) and the United States (35), the report found.
It also noted that Belarus -- the only European state that still allows capital punishment -- executed three people in 2014 compared to none in 2013.
But the overall positive trend was for fewer countries to use capital punishment, said Amnesty, which has been campaigning against the death penalty for nearly 40 years
"The numbers speak for themselves -- the death penalty is becoming a thing of the past," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general.
"The few countries that still execute need to take a serious look in the mirror and ask themselves if they want to continue to violate the right to life".
- 'Deeply disturbing' -
A major exception in 2014 was Egypt, where the number of death sentences rose to 509 from 109 in 2013.
"This included mass death sentences against 37 people in April and 183 people in June following unfair mass trials," the Amnesty report said.
Since the ouster of Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, at least 1,400 of his supporters have been killed in a heavy crackdown against critics of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Death sentences in Nigeria also shot up to 659 in 2014 from 141 in 2013 -- mainly linked to the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in the country's north.
In Pakistan, Amnesty said seven people were executed following the Peshawar school attack in which 141 people were killed, including 132 children.
In China, the authorities used the death penalty as a way of cracking down on unrest in the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang.
At least 21 people were executed in the mostly Muslim region in 2014, including three who were sentenced following a show trial in a stadium in front of thousands of spectators, the report said.
Amnesty also found that around the world there were 113 exonerations for death row prisoners in 2014.
"It's obviously deeply disturbing because it underlines how frequently people who are innocent are sentenced to death," Gaughran said.
In the United States, she pointed out that restrictions on access to lethal injection drugs meant that some states were now looking at alternative ways to execute prisoners.
"The opportunity wasn't taken in the United States to step back and talk about abolition, talk about moratoriums on execution."