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Amnesty and Pardon - Terminology And Etymology

clemency french penalty amnestia

The term pardon is first found in early French law and derives from the late Latin perdonare ("to grant freely"), suggesting a gift bestowed by the sovereign. It has thus come to be associated with a somewhat personal concession by a head of state to the perpetrator of an offense, in mitigation or remission of the full punishment that he has merited. Amnesty, on the other hand, derives from the Greek amnestia ("forgetting"), and has come to be used to describe measures of a more general nature, directed to offenses whose criminality is considered better forgotten. Yet, it is interesting to note that in ancient Greece, amnesties were in fact called adeia ("security" or "immunity"), and not amnestia. Moreover, the term pardon fell into disuse in French law, to be replaced by the term grâce.

Clemency is a broader term, often encompassing both amnesty and pardon (Weihofen). Gerald Ford's U.S. Presidential Clemency Board, on the other hand, specified that it was concerned with granting "clemency, not amnesty." Clemency, however, is not usually employed as a legal term.

Commutation and remission refer to a lowering of the severity of a penalty, for example, commuting a death sentence into life imprisonment, or remitting a portion of the prison term imposed. Reprieve refers to the postponement or temporary suspension of a penalty.

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