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What is an Amnesty Law?

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  • Written By: Florence J. Tipton
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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An amnesty law usually exempts an individual or a group of people from prosecution and conviction after being accused of certain crimes. Those protected by an amnesty law may include leaders who were in power during an act of war with an opposing faction within one country. War crimes in an amnesty law may include violation of human rights or attempts to overthrow the government. Amnesty law may also refer to allowing someone who enters a country illegally the legal right to remain in the country.

Many countries acknowledge some form of an amnesty law. The US amended its War Crimes Act of 1996 with the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA). The Military Commissions Act grants amnesty to military soldiers and authorized interrogators for war crimes committed before MCA became law. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed after the end of apartheid, which is systematic, legal segregation of people based on race. Part of its duties included granting amnesty for violators of human rights.

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The major provisions in an amnesty law typically call for giving total forgiveness to a person or a group that broke the laws of the land, particularly during a war. Granting amnesty usually means that prosecution will not occur for the person or group when facing charges of crimes against humanity after a war ends. While the amnesty law may exempt a person or group from local prosecution, this does not preclude facing possible criminal charges in an international court.

Generally, the provisions may include several types of crimes. A crime against humanity typically covers violations of human rights by attacking one or more persons with acts of rape, murder or religious suppression. These types of crimes may also classify as war crimes if they occurred during a civil war or war between different countries. War crimes may also refer to brutal treatment of prisoners held during a war.

Some countries may also use an amnesty law to refer to people who have entered a country without following proper immigration protocol. Often identified as illegal aliens, these people typically have either stayed longer than legally permitted or entered through illegal means. To receive amnesty under the illegal alien provision, the government may forgive individuals for violating its immigration policies.

Local or regional laws usually determine the type of violation that an illegal alien commits. A violation may include remaining in the country after a temporary visa for situations such as employment or education has expired. Additionally, violations may occur by using false documents to gain access to employment opportunities or other services within the country.

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