Rights Group: Tunisia imprisons people who fail to repay debt

Rights Group: Tunisia imprisons people who fail to repay debt
Photo: Harboub Prison, Tunisia / Courtesy: Mapping MENA

A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses Tunisia of imprisoning people for checks that bounce.  Checks that are meant to be cashed at a later date are often used as a means of obtaining credit in the country where people with lower incomes have a hard time gaining access to traditional loans.

“Imprisonment for unpaid debt is an anachronism and is both cruel and counterproductive to ensuring that creditors recover their due,” said Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. 

Government data cited by Human Rights Watch, finds at least 496 Tunisians are currently imprisoned for unpaid checks. But a business organization estimates the number is closer to 7,200 people. 

The penalty for failing to repay debt can be as high as a five-year sentence, which can devastate the finances and mental health of those imprisoned and their families.  

HRW says Tunisia should distinguish between those who intentionally write fraudulent checks and those who genuinely cannot afford to pay.  It’s calling on Tunisia to release its debt prisoners and help put them on a path to debt repayment.  

“The Parliament should amend the law to effectively get indebted people who had no intention to default out of prison and out of a downward economic spiral,” said Chellali.  

President Kais Saied supports an amendment and a bill was introduced last year that would grant amnesty to those accused of default but it hasn’t yet been debated. 

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