Tunisia is punishing the poor, criminalizing debt

Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed that several hundred Tunisians are serving prison sentences of up to 122 years for writing bad cheques, which is equivalent to fraud and is an illegal practice under Tunisian law in a report released. The law essentially criminalizes debt and punishes the poor.

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 common practice in Tunisia for merchants to write cheques for goods, for them to be cashed at a later time.

Cheques 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 cheque 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”.

Tunisia’s 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.

HRW 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 decriminalise bounced cheques”.


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