But Amnesty says the true number of deaths is still unknown Almost 90 per cent of the executions recorded around the world last year were carried out on the mainland, according to Amnesty International's latest report on the death penalty, to be released today. Of the 3,797 people known to have been executed in 25 countries last year, the human rights watchdog estimated that 3,400 were put to death on the mainland, accounting for 89.5 per cent of the total. Iran executed at least 159 and Vietnam 64. There were 59 executions in the United States. In its report released last year, Amnesty estimated that 726 people were put to death on the mainland out of a total of 2,756 worldwide in 2003. Hugh Whitby, the watchdog's death penalty co-ordinator in Hong Kong, said the higher figure could be due to different approaches to research adopted in 2003 and 2004. However, he said the figure was still lower than the actual number of people executed. Amnesty arrived at its estimate of last year's executions by sampling internet reports on trials. Before that, estimates were based on newspaper reports. '[But] the figure for last year is understood to be a fraction of the true number [of people put to death on the mainland],' he said. National People's Congress delegate Chen Zhonglin said last year that 'nearly 10,000' people were executed every year, although he said that was an estimate by academics. Beijing regards the number of executions as a state secret. Ben Carrdus, East Asia researcher for Amnesty International in London, said the watchdog was able to come up with a more accurate count by using the popular Google internet search engine. There are four peak periods for executions on the mainland: the two weeks before the lunar new year, World Anti-Drugs Day on June 26, China's National Day and the new year. 'We monitor the two-week period leading up to the Chinese New Year, then multiply that by four. We also monitor a 60-day period and extrapolate the rest of the year, excluding the four peak periods,' he said. Premier Wen Jiabao said at the end of the annual NPC session in March that Beijing would not abolish the death penalty given the 'national conditions'. However, he said reforms would ensure the penalty was applied justly. Beijing has been reforming the death penalty system by centralising the power to approve capital punishment, which has been delegated to local courts since 1984. The Supreme People's Court is also training judges to review death penalty sentences, a reform viewed by analysts as an attempt by the central government to improve its international image. Mr Whitby said the attempts at reforms were good signs. 'There has been inconsistency in the application of the death penalty ... I think that [centralisation of power to approve executions] should reduce the figure,' he said.