amnesty

amnesty

[am-nuh-stee]
amnesty, in law, exemption from prosecution for criminal action. It signifies forgiveness and the forgetting of past actions. Amnesties are usually extended to a group of persons during a period of prolonged disorder or insurrection. The criminals are offered a promise of immunity from prosecution if they will abandon their unlawful activities. After a revolution or civil war the victorious side will often extend amnesty to the losers; e.g., the United States granted a qualified amnesty to the Confederate forces after the Civil War. An amnesty is distinguished from a pardon, which is an act of forgiveness after the criminal has already been convicted.

In criminal law, a sovereign act of oblivion or forgetfulness (from Greek amnestia, “forgetfulness”) granted by a government, especially to a group of persons who are guilty of (usually political) crimes in the past. It is often conditional upon the group's return to obedience and duty within a prescribed period. Seealso pardon.

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International human-rights organization. It was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a London lawyer who organized a letter-writing campaign calling for amnesty for “prisoners of conscience.” AI seeks to inform the public about violations of human rights, especially abridgments of freedom of speech and religion and the imprisonment and torture of political dissidents. It actively seeks the release of political prisoners and support of their families when necessary. Its members and supporters are said to number one million people in some 140 countries. Its first director, Sean MacBride, won the 1974 Nobel Prize for Peace; AI itself won the award in 1977.

Learn more about Amnesty International (AI) with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Amnesty (from the Greek amnestia, oblivion) is a legislative or executive act by which a state restores those who may have been guilty of an offense against it to the positions of innocent persons. It includes more than pardon, in as much as it obliterates all legal remembrance of the offense. The word has the same root as amnesia.

Amnesties, which in the United Kingdom, may be granted by the crown alone, or by an act of Parliament, were formerly usual on coronations and similar occasions, but are chiefly exercised towards associations of political criminals, and are sometimes granted absolutely, though more frequently there are certain specified exceptions. Thus, in the case of the earliest recorded amnesty, that of Thrasybulus at Athens, the thirty tyrants and a few others were expressly excluded from its operation; and the amnesty proclaimed on the restoration of Charles II of England did not extend to those who had taken part in the execution of his father. Other famous amnesties include: Napoleon's amnesty of March 13, 1815 from which thirteen eminent persons, including Talleyrand, were exempt; the Prussian amnesty of August 10, 1840; the general amnesty proclaimed by the emperor Franz Josef I of Austria in 1857; the general amnesty granted by President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, after the American Civil War (1861-April 9, 1865), in 1868, and the French amnesty of 1905. Amnesty in U.S. politics in 1872 meant restoring the right to vote and hold office to ex-Confederates, which was achieved by act of Congress.

The last act of amnesty passed in Great Britain was that of 1747, which pardoned those who had taken part in the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

Purposes

An amnesty may be extended when the authority decides that bringing citizens into compliance with a law is more important than punishing them for past offenses. Amnesty is often used to get people to turn in contraband, as in the case of China's gun restrictions, or the Kansas City ban on pit bulls. Advantage of using amnesty may include avoiding expensive prosecutions (especially when massive numbers of violators are involved); prompting violators to come forward who might otherwise have eluded authorities; and promoting reconciliation between offenders and society. An example of the latter was the amnesty that was granted to conscientious objectors and draft dodgers in the wake of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, in an effort by President Carter to heal war wounds.

Controversy

Nonetheless, amnesty can also raise questions of justice. An example was the Ugandan government's offer to not prosecute alleged war criminal Joseph Kony, in hopes that further bloodshed would be avoided. David Smock noted, "The downside of it is the impunity that it implies; that people can commit atrocities and say that they will only stop if they are given amnesty...

A controversial issue in the United States is whether illegal immigrants should be granted some form of amnesty. It is proposed that immigrants be able to come forward and immediately receive probationary status. This is criticized as being a reward for breaking the law.

Related uses of the term

  • The term amnesty is also any initiative where individuals are encouraged to turn over illicit items to the authorities, on the understanding that they will not be prosecuted for having been in possession of those items. A common use of such amnesties, is to reduce the number of firearms or other weapons in circulation. Several public schools with a zero-tolerance policy on drugs or weapons have an "amnesty box" in which students may dispose of contraband objects brought to school without consequence.
  • Amnesty was used in South Africa, during the 1990s, as part of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation)
  • In the United States immigration debate, allowing illegal immigrants to legally remain in the United States is often called amnesty. Some observers contend that the word amnesty is improperly applied here. One reason for this contention is that the proposals under consideration include financial penalties for illegal immigrants. Another reason is that the government's current practice is generally to deport but not to prosecute illegal immigrants. Hence, there is no legal adjudication of guilt to be forgiven.
  • Many libraries have an amnesty week where people can return late library books and they will not be charged a fine for having them out.
  • At the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy, any head of state visiting the academy may ask the Superintendent to grant amnesty to members of the Corps of Cadets with outstanding punishment tours, freeing the restricted cadets from further punishment tours. In the past this was for all offenses, but in recent times only cadets with minor offenses (company board) are eligible for amnesty, while cadets with major offenses (regimental or higher board) are ineligible.

Improper uses of the term

  • Describing a change in a law which renders innocent actions which previously broke the law. For example, raising the speed limit from 55 to 70 is not "amnesty", even though those who have always gone 65 may now do so innocently. That is simply "changing the law", which is the job of lawmakers. Genuine amnesty is where a particular group of lawbreakers are pardoned for past violations which would otherwise be subject to prosecution.
  • Referring to imposed lesser sentences or punishments that are not "more than pardon, inasmuch as it obliterates all legal remembrance of the offense" as amnesty.
  • Often wrongly or purposely used by politicians and/or journalists to denote cases of pardon where offenses are not stricken from the record and individuals proclaimed innocent. Instead, those individuals receive some lesser reprimand or sentence in response to an admission of guilt. Otherwise defined as an act of leniency but not amnesty, per se..

See also

References

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