In spite of a "significant reduction" in the number of countries that have the death penalty, Amnesty International reported this week that "there was a sharp rise in executions in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen."
"The escalating use of the death penalty in the Middle East is seen as a tactic by the authorities to spread fear among dissidents in order to prevent them from participating in pro-democracy movements," Britain's liberal Guardian newspaper observed.
Amnesty International said that at least 676 judicial executions are known to have been carried out in 2011 around the world, excluding China. That's up from 527 a year earlier.
Confirmed executions in the Middle East increased by almost 50 percent in 2011 to 558, Amnesty International noted in its annual report on the death penalty. More than half of the 2011 global total were conducted in Iran, which carried out 360 known executions.
But Amnesty International and other human rights groups say that there's credible evidence scores of other unreported executions, including mass hangings, were carried out in secret in the Islamic Republic in 2011.
The sharp rise in the number of executions reported in Iran has raised suspicions the Tehran regime has, British international affairs analyst Simon Tisdall said, engaged in "a judicial killing spree" to intimidate its opponents.
Human rights organizations say this underlines the alarm within the regime that Iran could be infected by the wave of pro-democracy uprisings that has toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen in less than a year.
The Tehran regime has cracked down hard on dissidents since a major confrontation with protesters during the hotly disputed 2009 presidential election. Thousands of dissidents were arrested and continue to be harassed and persecuted. Ironically, the Iranian unrest broke out two years before the emergence of the so-called Arab Spring.
Amnesty International said there were 253 reported executions in the first six months of 2011, with another 300 people believed to have been killed, including juveniles.
In February 2011, Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist and former judge awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, accused Tehran of using criminal charges, narcotics in particular, to mask executions for political purposes.
"A second-term presidency launched amid bloodily suppressed riots in 2009 now appears to be assuming an even more vicious character as reports accumulate of ongoing secret mass executions and new waves of political repression," Tisdall wrote recently.
Amnesty International said the number of executions in Syria isn't known but the secretive minority regime has killed thousands of protesters and dissidents since an uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted March 15, 2011.
The regime's security forces and secret police are widely believed to have summarily executed an unknown number of suspected activists held in prisons where hundreds of political prisoners have been detained.
Amnesty International says Yemen executed 41 people in 2011, while Saudi Arabia beheaded at least 82 in executions in 2011, compared to 55 in 2010. Some involved people convicted of narcotics offenses.
The Saudi monarchy, which has shown little tolerance for dissent over the years, has been alarmed by the regional surge toward democracy and has sought to eradicate any challenge to its power.
In Iraq, which acknowledged only one execution in 2010, Amnesty International reported there were at least 68 executions in 2011.
Since U.S. forces withdrew in December, human rights activists have reported a surge in official executions, some of which allegedly involved political opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He appears bent on flying in the face of the regional trend toward democracy by systematically eliminating his rivals.
Human Rights Watch reported Feb. 8 that 65 people were executed in the first 40 days of 2012, almost as many as the 2011 total of 68.
Human Rights Watch's Deputy Middle East Director Joe Stork said Maliki had apparently given "the green light to execute at will … The government needs to declare an immediate moratorium on all executions and begin an overhaul of its flawed criminal justice system."