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Bahrain visit: Cameron embraces tyranny

As President Obama tells the Middle East to embrace democracy, the Prime Minister welcomes Bahrain's Crown Prince to Britain

In Bahrain, it was another day of violence and repression as the Saudi-backed Al-Khalifa dynasty continued to clamp down on protesters demanding a better life for the repressed Shia majority.

But in Downing Street, David Cameron exchanged a warm handshake with Bahrain's Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. While other Arab tyrants feel the full force of British disapproval, Sheikh Salman is here on a mission to repair the damaged reputation of his dynasty. His visit prompted an outcry from politicians and civil rights campaigners. It came on the day when President Obama delivered his first major speech on the Arab Spring, which he said would open a "new chapter in American diplomacy". "It will be the policy of the US to promote reform, and to support transitions to democracy," he promised.

The Labour MP Denis MacShane, a former Foreign Office minister, said: "It's unbelievable, at a time when Bahrain is becoming the torture chamber of the Gulf, with terrible reports of killings and beatings, that David Cameron has even allowed the torturer-in-chief into Britain, let alone into Downing Street." Amnesty International UK's director, Kate Allen, said: "The Prime Minister ought to make it clear to Sheikh Salman that Bahrain's relations with the UK will suffer if the Bahraini authorities refuse to allow peaceful protests or conduct proper investigations into numerous allegations that detained protesters have been tortured."

The civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell described the visit as "a shocking misjudgment". He added: "To fete the Crown Prince of Bahrain at a time when his regime is arresting, jailing, torturing and killing peaceful democracy protesters is a slap in the face to the victims of repression."

Martial law is due to be lifted in Bahrain on 1 June after being imposed in March, when Saudi troops moved in after thousands of people protested for better conditions for the Shia majority.

This month, the Foreign Secretary William Hague took the lead in organising EU sanctions against Syria after government troops fired on protesters, but on Bahrain he has gone no further than saying that the UK is "very concerned" about civil rights abuses.

Hundreds of people have been arrested and tried since the demonstrations began in Bahrain. The state-run news agency reported yesterday that nine people, including the well-known Shia cleric Mohammed Habib al-Saffaf, have been sentenced to 20 years in prison on a charge of kidnapping a police officer.

Earlier this month, The Independent carried details of the persecution of medical staff who protested at being prevented from treating those injured in the demonstrations. Last month, a court sentenced four Shia protesters to death and three others to life imprisonment for killing two policemen.

The latest reports from Shia leaders suggest that a form of ethnic cleansing is under way by pressuring members of the Shia majority to leave. The minority Sunni ruling class in Bahrain is seen as a pro-Western bulwark against Iran. There is also vast British investment at stake in the sheikhdom. The taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland has £302m worth of loans tied up in Bahrain. In April, the annual meeting of the Bahrain British Business Forum looked back on what its chairman called a "record year".

A Downing Street spokesman said last night: "The Prime Minister raised concerns about the situation in Bahrain and stressed the importance of the government moving to a policy of reform rather than repression." Mr Cameron said grievances on all sides should be addressed "through constructive dialogue". The spokesman added: "The Prime Minister emphasised his support for the Crown Prince's long-standing work to achieve political and economic progress in Bahrain."

Until the wave of demonstrations began, British firms were supplying Bahrain with assault rifles, sub-machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles, hand grenades, smoke ammunition, stun grenades, and tear gas. In 2009-10, arms sales totalled £6.4m. In February the Foreign Office hastily revoked 44 individual or open licences for arms sales.