By Venus Wu and Pak Yiu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China was the world's top executioner last year, while the United States put to death fewer people than it has in more than two decades, the human rights group Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
More than 90 percent of the world's executions took place in five countries - China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.
More than 3,000 people in 55 countries were condemned to death last year, marking a 56 percent surge from 2015.
China is believed to have executed "thousands" of people, more than the combined figure of at least 1,023 executions in 23 other countries last year, the rights group said.
"China now wants to assume a global leadership role. In respect to death penalty it is leading in the worst possible way," said Amnesty International's regional director for East Asia, Nicholas Bequelin.
"Nobody executes at that scale. Nobody executes with such secrecy. Nobody executes so quickly."
China does not announce the number of people executed, guarding the data as a state secret.
The head of China's Supreme People's Court, Zhou Qiang, said in March China has made sure to impose capital punishment on "an extremely small number of criminals who committed extremely serious crimes," according to the official Xinhua news agency.
But Bequelin called Zhou's statement "misleading and disingenuous".
Amnesty's China-focused report, China's Deadly Secret, said for 2016, the group found 305 executions using a Chinese search engine, but only 26 of those cases made it to a national database.
"Whatever is recorded officially is only the tip of a huge, shameful iceberg," Bequelin said.
'FLAWED AND CRUEL'
For the first time in a decade, the United States dropped out of the world's top five executioners, recording 20 death sentences carried out last year, the fewest since 1991, putting it in seventh place after Egypt.
Most U.S. executions took place in the states of Georgia and Texas, while 19 states have abolished the death penalty.
The number of death sentences in the United States, at 32, was also the lowest since 1973.
"This shows that judges and juries are less inclined to resort to this flawed and cruel practice," said James Lynch, deputy director of Amnesty International's Global Issues Programme.
Support for the death penalty in the United States fell to 49 percent, the lowest in more than four decades, according to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Centre.
Although President Donald Trump has supported the death penalty, Lynch said the fight against capital punishment took place mostly at the state level, adding federal authorities had not carried out any executions since 2003.
"Rhetoric and tone from important political figures, not the least the president, is important and is something we would be concerned about," Lynch said. "But there is a long term trend against the death penalty in the U.S."
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by Robert Birsel)