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What is Amnesty?

By Greer Hed
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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Amnesty is a legal term that describes the complete abolition of an offense by the state. The legal result is that any charges or convictions are wiped out and forgotten, and those persons who were charged or convicted are then considered innocent. This concept differs from legal pardon because "pardon" implies that an offense is being forgiven, instead of forgotten completely. Amnesty is often granted because a governing authority decides that the need for offenders to comply with the law outweighs the importance of taking punitive measures against them. It may also be granted to the losing side after the end of a war or revolution in an attempt to bring about reconciliation, or to avoid high costs of prosecuting large numbers of offenders.

The earliest recorded example of the term dates back to Ancient Greece. In this case, the city of Athens was defeated by the city of Sparta, and a new oligarchical governing body, referred to as the Thirty Tyrants, was instituted by the Spartan conquerors. This government was responsible for a number of executions and human rights abuses. An Athenian general named Thrasybulus, who had been exiled to Thebes for opposing the Thirty Tyrants, gathered a force of several hundred men and returned to Athens to drive the tyrants out. Thrasybulus restored democracy in Athens, and one of his first acts as a leader was to issue a law granting amnesty to the majority of the oligarchs of the previous regime.

This legal concept is often confused with that of pardon, in which offenses are forgiven, rather than forgotten. In fact, the very word "amnesty" shares a common root with the word "amnesia," meaning a loss of memory. Another distinction between the terms is that pardon may only be granted to individuals who have already been convicted, while amnesty may be granted to individuals who have been charged, but not convicted yet.

Often, amnesty is extended to individuals on the losing side of a war or revolution after conflict has ended. For instance, citizens of the Confederacy during the American Civil War were told that their secession would be forgotten if they took an oath of allegiance to the United States under President Andrew Johnson. Similarly, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee of 1995 considered requests for amnesty from prosecution from petitioners who had committed acts of violence under the system of apartheid. Amnesty may also be offered to offenders to convince them to comply with the law, often by turning over contraband or giving information to law officials.

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Discussion Comments
By lluviaporos — On Jan 28, 2013

@clinflint - I get what you're saying, but in a lot of cases AI is dealing with people who have committed a crime but the punishment doesn't fit.

In some cases, yes, the action probably shouldn't be a crime in the first place (like criticizing the government) but the fact remains that legally, what they are asking for is amnesty.

If they were asking for a pardon (which I'm sure they'd be happy to do in some cases anyway) they'd be looking for forgiveness and admitting that they were wrong.

Amnesty means that both government and accused can save face and all crimes are completely wiped clean, rather than just forgiven. So it does fit the organization well.

By clintflint — On Jan 27, 2013

@KoiwiGal - Huh, I never actually knew that's what the word amnesty meant. I always associated it with Amnesty International and I thought it basically meant making peace or something like that.

I can see why they would want a name like that for their organization, but I also think it's kind of a shame. Because most of the time the people they are defending are people who shouldn't have been prosecuted in the first place. The fact that they should need "amnesty" as opposed to a change of government, makes me kind of mad.

By KoiwiGal — On Jan 26, 2013

I live in New Zealand and we have government issued students loans here, for university. A couple of times, the government has offered an amnesty for people who had gone overseas and hadn't been paying off their loans like they were supposed to.

Technically, those people should receive a penalty, because they didn't declare that they were overseas or they weren't paying back their loans. But, in this case, the government realized that it was worth granting an amnesty so that they would at least get some money back. It was worth it to the people overseas as well, since, because of the fines, if they entered the country again they would have been identified and tracked down. After the amnesty, they could return home without having to worry about it (as long as they continued to pay back their loan from that point).

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