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amnesty (ămˈnəstē), 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.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a complete or partial release of criminals from punishment or the replacement of a court-determined punishment by a milder one. An amnesty may also clear the criminal record of persons who have already served a term of punishment. Sometimes persons who have committed offenses subject to administrative or disciplinary punishment are released from the usual punishments.

An amnesty may be general and apply to all persons who have committed crimes defined by articles of the criminal code, with observance of other conditions of the amnesty, or partial, that is, apply only to certain persons—an act of pardon. The categories of persons to whom an amnesty applies are set forth for each specific case in the act of amnesty itself. As a general rule, an amnesty applies only to crimes committed before the particular amnesty was published or entered into force. The right to grant amnesty is usually the prerogative of the supreme representative body of a country or the head of state.

In the USSR the right to grant amnesty is a prerogative of the supreme bodies of state authority of the USSR or the Union Republics—the USSR Supreme Soviet (the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet between sessions) and the Union Republic Supreme Soviets (or their Presidiums). An All-Union amnesty may apply to any person who has been convicted or who is being tried in a criminal court on the territory of the USSR; a republic amnesty applies only to persons who have been convicted by a court of the particular Union Republic or are being tried in a criminal court on its territory.

If an amnesty is proclaimed, cases that are in the stage of investigation are discontinued and cases that have not come up for trial yet are dismissed, even though the investigation may have been completed. Persons serving a punishment either are freed or have their term reduced. If criminal proceedings have not yet been instituted, a case can be dropped. If a defendant whose case is subject to amnesty considers himself innocent and objects to the dismissal of his case on amnesty, the case cannot be discontinued and the investigation and court hearing on it must continue. But if the court finds the defendant guilty, the case is dismissed on the grounds established by the amnesty.

In the USSR and the other socialist countries amnesty is an expression of socialist humanism, aimed at alleviating the fate of persons who have committed crimes, the nature and circumstances of which attest to the relatively small degree of public danger of the act and of the defendant himself. Amnesty contributes to the speediest return to society of persons who show signs of reforming and creates an additional incentive for reform. The use of amnesty is therefore not at odds with the general tasks of criminal law in fighting crime. As a rule, amnesty does not apply to persons who have committed especially grave crimes, to recidivists, or to persons who commit offenses while serving their term of punishment.

In the USSR amnesties were proclaimed on the 20th anniversary of the Red Army (1938). They applied to former prisoners who voluntarily, after serving their term of punishment, remained at the construction of the Moscow-Volga Canal (1938) and to persons who arbitrarily left enterprises of the military industry and who voluntarily returned to these enterprises (1944). Amnesties were also proclaimed on the victory over Hitler’s Germany (1945), in 1953, and on the 50th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution (Oct. 31, 1967).

In the bourgeois states amnesty is part of the punitive policy of the ruling classes and often does not extend to progressive elements or to persons convicted of political crimes. Moreover, amnesty in the bourgeois states is often used for the political deception of the masses—an amnesty of political prisoners is formally proclaimed in advance and broadly advertised but only selected small groups of persons are released. Such amnesties were repeatedly proclaimed by the Spanish dictator Franco; a similar amnesty was declared by the Greek military junta in 1968. In the FRG the 1950 amnesty was used to clear Nazis who had committed mass atrocities during World War II.


Amnistiia i pomilovanie v SSSR. Moscow, 1959.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Law a pardon granted by the Crown or Executive and effected by statute
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005