The number of state executions almost doubled last year worldwide, with China accounting for nearly three-quarters of the total, Amnesty International says.
In its annual survey, the group says 2,390 people were put to death in 2008, up from 1,252 in 2007. Of those, 1,718 people (72%) were executed in China.
Another 8,864 people were sentenced to death, up from 3,347 in 2007.
On the positive side, the report shows that only 59 nations retained the death penalty, and few actually used it.
The group's secretary general, Irene Khan, said such punishments as beheading, stoning and electrocution "have no place in the 21st Century".
Despite the rise in executions during 2008, she said there were reasons to be optimistic.
"The good news is that executions are only carried out by a small number of countries, which shows that we are moving closer to a death-penalty free world," she said.
The group highlighted decisions by Argentina and Uzbekistan to abolish the death penalty in 2008.
And the fact that Belarus was the only European nation to carry out executions was also interpreted positively.
But Ms Khan said the "bad news" in the report, entitled Death Sentences and Executions in 2008, was that hundreds of people continued to suffer.
Of 25 nations using the death penalty in 2008, China was the most prolific.
The report said China used lethal injection and shooting to execute at least 1,718 people.
But Beijing does not publish data on the death penalty.
Of the top-six countries in Amnesty's list, only the US (37) publishes statistics on the penalty's use.
The figures for the others are estimates based on what Amnesty has verified through media reports, rights groups and official statements.
Other groups frequently give much higher figures.
The other worst-offending nations on the list are Iran (346), Saudi Arabia (102), Pakistan (36) and Iraq (34).
Amnesty also highlighted "worrying instances" of some nations bucking a long-term trend away from the death penalty.
St Kitts and Nevis carried out the first execution in the Caribbean for five years, the group's report said.
And Liberia introduced capital punishment for robbery, terrorism and hijacking.