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GENEVA (Reuters) - An increasing number of countries are abolishing the death penalty and even the most active users of capital punishment are taking steps to restrict it, a congress of abolitionists heard on Wednesday.
The three-day World Congress Against the Death Penalty hopes to give momentum to a trend that has seen roughly 4 countries a year, especially in Africa and Central Asia, join the ranks of abolitionists in recent decades.
"There is a new trend against the death penalty that is something new for the world," said Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Community of Sant'Egidio, an Italian advocacy group that is one of the driving forces in the global campaign to stop the death penalty.
The congress is backed by the Swiss government and draws strong support from Italy and Spain -- reflecting the fact that Europe is now almost entirely free of executions.
The campaign was given support by a non-binding United Nations resolution in 2007 calling on countries who use the death penalty to introduce a moratorium and arguing that capital punishment undermined human dignity and was not a deterrent.
Marazziti told a briefing that 56 countries continued to execute people, while 141 countries did not use the death penalty, including 93 that had formally abolished it altogether.
Since 2007 the African states of Rwanda and Burundi have abolished the death penalty, joining Cambodia to show that even countries that have suffered genocide can drop it.
In China, which probably executes more people annually than any other country, the supreme court ordered judges earlier this month to limit the use of the death penalty to the most serious crimes. Amnesty International estimates that at least 7,000 people were sentenced to death in China in 2008 and 1,718 executed in that year.
Abolitionists hope that a series of countries, mainly in Africa, that have moratoriums on the death penalty and backed the U.N. resolution will move to full abolition, while others can be persuaded to adopt moratoriums.
In the United States, where capital punishment is largely controlled by the states, New Jersey and New Mexico have repealed the death penalty in recent years.
Campaigners hope President Barack Obama will set an example by declaring a moratorium on the federal death penalty.
They also see diminishing support for the death penalty among the public, now that many states offer the alternative of life in prison without parole, and the high cost of running death row and executions is worrying some state governments.
Reporting by Jonathan Lynn; editing by Noah Barkin