THE government of Tunisia must do more to uphold human rights and the rule of law and to allow political pluralism if the country is to win “advanced-partner status” to give it cosier relations with the European Union (EU). That, at any rate, is the view of Tunisia’s bravest human-rights campaigners who, earlier this summer, badgered officials in Spain, which then held the EU’s rotating presidency. The Spaniards duly raised the issue in Brussels.

This annoyed Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (pictured), who has ruled Tunisia since 1987 with virtually no opposition. But far from bowing to such pressure, his parliament passed an amendment to the penal code’s section on espionage, adding a clause that anyone deemed to “harm Tunisia’s vital interests” must go to prison for at least five years. Just to be sure, officials made clear that this includes the crime of “inciting foreign parties not to grant loans to Tunisia, not to invest in the country, to boycott tourism or to sabotage Tunisia’s efforts to obtain advanced-partner status with the EU.”

Mr Ben Ali, nearly 74, often boasts of running a stable, modestly prosperous, well-educated country, with the Arab world’s most liberal legislation for women’s rights. But democracy is another matter. After his election to a fifth term in October, with 90% of the vote, his fist got tighter than usual. Amnesty International says that dissidents are held in dire conditions; those still free are constantly harassed. According to the human-rights body, security agents infiltrate opposition groups to take control of them, stifling open politics. Moreover, according to a book published last year in France but banned in Tunisia, Mr Ben Ali’s family and influential wife, Leila Trabelsi, own a number of lucrative monopolies that hamper the free market.

The press is weak too. The state filters the internet, often confiscates editions of newspapers that dare publish dissident views, and jails independent journalists such as Fahem Boukadous, who was sentenced this month to four years in prison for reporting worker unrest in the mining region of Gafsa in 2008. That provoked a rare rebuke by the American State Department, which said it was “deeply concerned about the decline of political freedoms.”

By contrast the EU, apparently under pressure from France and Italy, which both have close ties to Tunisia, has kept quiet. Advanced-status negotiations continue.

The Economist online