HRW: Tunisia jailing hundreds for debt default violates human rights News
jorono / Pixabay
HRW: Tunisia jailing hundreds for debt default violates human rights

Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed that several hundred Tunisians are serving prison sentences of up to 122 years for writing bad checks, which is equivalent to fraud and is an illegal practice under Tunisian law in a report released on Monday. The report argues that this is a violation of international human rights law, and puts forth suggestions for legal reforms, release of detainees, and establishment of a repayment plan.

It is a common practice in Tunisia for merchants to write checks for goods, for them to be cashed at a later time. Checks serve as a security of an informal loan “to be cashed on a mutually agreed upon later date.” Under the Tunisian Commercial Code, the writing of a bad check is a criminal offense that can result in up to five years imprisonment. HRW says in its report that this is incompatible with Article 11 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that “no one shall be imprisoned merely on the ground of inability to fulfil a contractual obligation.” HRW concluded that imprisonment solely for providing a check when they lack the means to fund it not only amounts to a violation of international human rights law, but Tunisia director at HRW Salsabil Chellali added also the imprisonment deprived debtors of their ability to earn income to gradually repay the debt and support their households.

The report noted that even though there is no official debt imprisonment, the government officially declared that¬†“over 496 people are currently imprisoned for writing bounced or No Sufficient Fund (NSF) checks”. Essentially, a bounced check that is fraudulent and a bounced check for insufficient funds are not differentiated under the current law. HRW concludes through its findings that imprisonment for writing NSF checks in Tunisia is a “disguised, long-practiced form of imprisonment for debt.”

The number of debt imprisonment in Tunisia is disputed. HRW, quoting the National Association of Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises, said over 7,200 people are in detention due to NSF checks and thousands of Tunisians are wanted by the authorities, living in hiding or have already fled the country.

HRW put forth a series of recommendations to the Tunisian Government, Tunisian Parliament, Ministry of Justice, Central Bank of Tunisia and international partners and financial institutions. It recommends that the Tunisian government and Parliament repeal Article 411 and other provisions of the Tunisian Commercial Code, which stipulates the imprisonment of issuers of NSF checks without any distinction between a person refusing to pay and a person unable to pay. It also recommends the government enact new laws that allow debtors to declare bankruptcy in lieu of imprisonment and invites the Central Bank of Tunisia to “promote reforms to decriminalize bounced checks.”