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Human Rights Watch on Imprisonment for Debt

posted by Jason Kilborn

What happens in countries where no consumer bankruptcy regime exists as a safety valve to assuage the worst consequences of unpayable debt? A report this week from Human Rights Watch ("We Lost Everything": Debt Imprisonment in Jordan) offers one heart-wrenching answer. The following excerpt captures the essence:

Jordan is one of the few countries in the world that still allows debt imprisonment. Failure to repay even small debts is a crime that carries a penalty of up to 90 days in prison per debt, and up to one year for a bounced check; courts routinely sentence people without even holding a hearing. The law does not make an exception for lack of income, or other factors that impede borrowers’ ability to repay, and the debt remains even after serving the sentence. Over a quarter-million Jordanians face complaints of debt delinquency and around 2,630 people, about 16 percent of Jordan’s prison population, were locked up for nonpayment of loans and bounced checks in 2019.

The response from the Jordanian Ministry of Justice is well worth reading, and it concludes by offering some hope: "A committee is reviewing the Execution Law in such a way to ensure justice and account for the interests of both parties (borrower and creditor)." Let us hope that this review concludes as it has in many, many countries around the world in recent years--with a proposal for the adoption of a personal bankruptcy law, following the guidance of the World Bank and other international organizations.

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