Rights group Amnesty International has urged China to disclose the number of prisoners it executes.
In its annual report on the use of the death penalty, Amnesty said some 714 people were known to have been executed in 18 countries in 2009.
But the group said the true global figure could be much higher, as thousands of executions were thought to have been carried out in China alone.
At least 366 people were executed in Iran, 120 in Iraq and 52 in the US.
Amnesty praised Burundi and Togo for abolishing the death penalty in 2009 and said that for the first time in modern history, no-one had been executed in Europe or the former Soviet Union over the year.
Beijing says it executes fewer people now than it has in the past, but has always maintained that details of its executions are a state secret.
However, Amnesty said that “evidence from previous years and a number of current sources indicates that the figure remains in the thousands”.
It said the death penalty could be applied to 68 offences in the country, including non-violent crimes, with executions carried out by lethal injection or firing squad.
Many people were sentenced based on confessions extracted under torture and having had limited access to legal counsel, it said.
“The Chinese authorities claim that fewer executions are taking place,” said Amnesty’s Interim Secretary General Claudio Cordone.
“If this is true, why won’t they tell the world how many people the state put to death?” …