By Saba Aziz

Amnesty International has expressed concern that the death penalty continues to be applied in some Middle Eastern countries, as it reported a worldwide decline in executions and death sentences in 2017. In its annual report published on Thursday, the international rights group documented at least 993 executions in 23 countries last year - a four percent decline from 2016, when 1,032 executions were recorded. From a record high of 3,117 in 2016, since Amnesty began documentation, 2,591 death sentences were imposed worldwide - a 17 percent decline. But for the second year in a row, the Middle Eastern countries of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were the top three for the number of executions in the world - along with Pakistan, they account for 84 percent of executions recorded worldwide.

At 264, the Middle East and North Africa region also recorded the highest number of drug-related executions last year, the report said. In Saudi Arabia, beheadings of drug offenders accounted for 40 percent of total executions - an increase from 16 percent in 2016. 

Since 1977, Amnesty has been advocating the abolition of the death penalty, which Popoola said is "the ultimate denial of human rights" and "serves the society no good". "Despite strides towards abolishing this abhorrent punishment, there are still a few leaders who would resort to the death penalty as a 'quick-fix' rather than tackling problems at their roots with humane, effective and evidence-based policies," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's secretary-general, in a statement.