Jordan Pulse

Jordanians pressure government to end imprisonment of debtors

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Article Summary
Thousands of Jordanians have either fled their country or are lingering in jail for failing to pay their debts, an act that is punishable by law in Jordan, though lawmakers are trying to make some changes.

Jordanian lawmakers are calling on the government to amend laws that allow for the imprisonment of indebted people who are insolvent despite international treaties. Mutaz Abu Rumman, one of the 100 members of the Lower House who signed a petition in July to amend the penal code and the judicial execution law, told Al-Monitor that over 250,000 Jordanians inside the kingdom and abroad are wanted for failing to pay debts or for writing bad checks. Thousands of others have been jailed on similar charges.

The number of insolvent individuals and businesses has been on the rise in recent years due to worsening economic conditions, with unemployment currently standing at 19.5% and absolute poverty across the kingdom estimated at more than 15%.

Activists and families of indebted people staged a protest near the royal court on Dec. 21 — one of many in recent months — calling for the abrogation of an article in the judicial execution law that allows a creditor to demand that an indebted person be imprisoned unless a settlement that meets certain requirements is reached. An indebted person can be imprisoned multiple times if repayment is not made.

Saleh al-Armouti, another lawmaker who signed the petition, told Al-Monitor that at least 300 major merchants have fled the kingdom this year alone because they have become insolvent and now face arrest warrants. Armouti and Abu Rumman want the government to amend the penal code was enacted in 1960 to prevent the imprisonment of debtors, with the exception of cases of fraud, while preserving the rights of creditors.

Lawmakers and activists argue that the imprisonment of indebted people has adverse social impacts and fails to resolve issues. Abu Rumman said that thousands of families suffer when the head of the family is jailed for failing to pay a debt. The problem has become so acute that activists have launched an online campaign in December called “Be generous and forgive,” calling on creditors to write off debts, especially for poor families.

Many debtors owe money to banks for small loans or to merchants for goods they had bought on credit. Armouti said that official figures indicate that there are 14,500 women who are in default of their debts, many of whom are already behind bars. 

In March of this year, King Abdullah called for a national campaign to help indebted Jordanian women who had taken out loans to support their families. In response, the Ministry of Awqaf stated on March 24 that 5,672 women whose debts are less than 1,000 Jordanian dinars ($1,400) are expected to benefit from the public campaign, which had raised 2.5 million dinars ($3.5 million). And on March 30, the Zakat Fund, which is part of the Ministry of Awqaf, announced that the king would cover the debts of 1,500 women who have mostly borrowed from microfinance funds and other lenders. 

But such initiatives are not enough to resolve what is becoming a national crisis, according to Abu Rumman. He said that the government must move to amend the laws so that insolvent people are not treated as criminals. “This year alone an estimated 650 million Jordanian dinars [$900 million] worth of bad checks have been reported,” he said.

Under the penal code, a person accused of writing a bad check could face a year in jail, but the sentence does not erase the debt.

Head of public liberties and human rights at the Bar Association Walid al-Udwan told Al-Monitor that a formula must be found that protects lenders’ rights under the law while preventing the imprisonment of those who are unable to pay. “The current situation threatens social stability while failing to resolve the issue,” he said.

But the government has been resistant to public pressure. On Nov. 17, Minister of Justice Bassam al-Talhouni announced that an amended draft of the judicial execution law is being studied and will be sent to the Lower House. But he failed to mention whether the article allowing for the imprisonment of indebted people will be revised. In May 2018, parliament passed the insolvency law, which enables individuals and companies to reorganize their businesses under deals reached with creditors. It also failed to address the imprisonment of indebted individuals under the penal code and the judicial execution law.

Head of the Legislation and Opinion Bureau, which drafts and amends laws on behalf of the government, Fida al-Hmoud told Al-Monitor that the government is studying a proposal to revise current laws that allow for the imprisonment of individuals for writing bad checks or for failing to pay creditors. “We are talking to experts and looking at case studies in other countries,” she said. But she did not give a time frame. She blamed some creditors who give out loans with no collateral. “Unfortunately, the only collateral in such case is the threat of prison for failing to pay,” Hmoud added.

Meanwhile, Armouti said thousands of Jordanians have fled the country to avoid prison while those who can’t are either in hiding or lingering in jail without a solution.

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Found in: loans, debt, debt forgiveness, debt crisis, jordanian economy

Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman who specializes in Middle East issues. He can be reached at alsharif.osama@gmail.com. On Twitter: @plato010

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