Furore over royal wedding guest list

Bahraini prince pulls out after global outrage at crackdown on protests / Human rights groups say representatives of despotic regimes should be barred

Prince Charles and the Foreign Office found themselves at the centre of a human rights row over the guest list for Friday's royal wedding, with protests planned outside Westminster Abbey and five-star hotels because of invitations to foreign despots and figureheads from autocratic regimes.

The Crown Prince of Bahrain was last night forced to pull out of attending the wedding, hours before he had been due to fly in to London, amid anger over his role in the Gulf state's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Human rights activists had pledged to disrupt Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa's stay in Britain with a series of protests, insisting that he is the chief architect of the Saudi-backed security forces' violent response to the demonstrators, which has left up to 31 people dead.

More than 500 opponents of the regime have been arrested since protests began in February, while there has been mounting international outrage at the regime's targeting of medical staff willing to treat those injured in clashes with Baharani police.

The Bahraini prince wrote to the Prince of Wales yesterday apologising for withdrawing, which he described as a matter of "deep regret". He said he had left the decision "for as long as possible in the sincere hope that ongoing events – resulting from recent unrest in the Kingdom of Bahrain – might have improved, leaving me able to join the celebrations without being overshadowed by issues in Bahrain."

The prince was due to attend the service at the special invitation of the Queen, sitting alongside overseas monarchy, diplomats and Commonwealth heads of state at the front of Westminster Abbey.

Protests are still expected to go ahead despite his absence because of the presence of Saudi Arabia's Prince Mohamed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, Zimbabwe's ambassador to the UK, and the King of Swaziland over human rights abuses in their countries.

St James's Palace said that all diplomatic invitations had been agreed by the Foreign Office. A Palace spokesman said there were now no plans for anyone to represent the people of Bahrain. The Foreign Office declined to comment. All sides insisted that the decision was a "private matter" and that no diplomatic pressure had been brought to bear.

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said he believed Britain, which is one of the country's leading trading partners, had asked the Bahraini prince to stay away to prevent further embarrassment.

Bahrainis living in the UK plan to stage demonstrations close to Westminster Abbey at the decision to invite Prince Salman, who has been commander-in-chief of the country's defence force since 1999.

"We are still very upset because the invitation is still valid. He rejected it," he said. "We would like to see the British government fully condemn what is going on – not invite people to a wedding who have blood on their hands.

"Doctors and people are in jail at this moment. Hospitals are under attack... Human rights activists are being killed and tortured to death and thousands of people are in jail."

The human rights situation in the country has deteriorated dramatically in the last month. This weekend opposition leaders said the authorities have demolished 16 mosques as punishment for protests by the Shia majority against their Sunni rulers.

In a report last week, Amnesty International accused the Bahraini government of using "excessive force" since launching an "orchestrated crackdown" against protesters on 16 March. It said security forces were using shotguns, rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition.

Four people are believed to have died in custody while the whereabouts of hundreds of detainees is still not known. Among those held are doctors and nurses from the Salmaniya Medical Complex, Bahrain's main hospital.

An Amnesty spokesman called on the British government to use any opportunity to urge Bahrain to halt its crackdown on freedom of expression and demanded it put an end to double standards after vigorously supporting opponents of the existing regimes in Libya and Syria.

In his letter to Prince Charles, Prince Salman said the British media had "fundamentally misrepresented my own position on recent events and sought to involve my attendance as a proxy for wider matters involving Bahrain".

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