Bahraini Pro-Democracy Activists Stage Protest against King Hamad.IBTimes UK

Prince Andrew has withdrawn, at the last minute, from a controversial Bahraini-funded PR conference in London promoting the Gulf Kingdom as a place of freedom and tolerance.

The Duke of York has maintained good relations with the Bahraini regime, with frequent visits as Britain's former special representative for trade and investment.

He caused controversy when speaking during a visit to Bahrain last month, when he claimed that what's happening in the archipelago is "a source of hope for many people in the world".

"He has already committed to attend an economic event at Bloomberg and regrettably it wasn't possible to attend both events," said a royal official, according to the Telegraph. "The Duke is, however, a long-standing supporter of the UK's bilateral relationship with Bahrain."

The surprise withdrawal was welcomed by Bahraini pro-democracy activists, who staged a protest in response to the Gulf Kingdom's PR campaign to highlight what they think are the regime's human rights violations, repression and unrest.

"Prince Andrew withdrew from this conference this morning and there is no high-level person at this conference today, so pretty much what we were striving for has happened," Maryam Al-Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), told IBTimes UK.

"It has become too embarrassing [for the Duke of York] to appear publicly with them".

Strong relationship

The meeting Prince Andrew was meant to open is called "This is Bahrain!" and is arranged by the Bahrain Federation of Expatriate Associations, part of an attempt to further strengthen the ties between Britain and the island kingdom.

Britain sold Bahrain military equipment worth £18m in 2013, according to the Campaign against the Arms Trade (CAAT), and wants to sell Bahrain Typhoon jet fighters estimated at £1bn.

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is expected to attend the Royal Windsor Horse Show next Sunday, to watch the Kingdom of Bahrain Trophy.

Yet the Gulf Kingdom is plunging deeper into sectarian conflict, between the ruling Sunni-al-Khalifa minority and the neglected Shia majority.

Al-Wefaq, the country's main opposition party, reported that 170 protesters, including 29 children, were arrested by government security forces in April. At least 58 protesters were injured, mostly by birdshot.

The Bahrain independent commission of inquiry, set up by the Bahraini government itself and headed by UN war crimes expert Cherif Bassiouni, found that detailers are tortured using more than a dozen different techniques, including electric shock, sleep deprivation and threats of rape.

"At a time when we're still seeing people teargassed, beaten on the streets, and tortured at the criminal investigation department...we're seeing a conference which has been put up in London which is whitewashing the regime and promoting them as this peace-caring, interfaith and inter-civilisation, which is very far from the truth," said Al-Khawaja.

New allegations

The Bahraini King's son Prince Nasser is facing a London court bid to overturn his immunity from prosecution over torture allegations.

A Bahraini citizen sought the arrest of the son of Bahrain's king following allegations that he was directly involved in the torture of three prisoners in Bahrain during the pro-democracy uprising in 2011.

The Bahraini government reacted saying that it never sought from the British Court "either anonymity or sovereign immunity for anyone in respect of this case.

"The Government simply refutes in the strongest possible terms the factual basis for the underlying allegations which it maintains are unfounded, false and politically motivated," reads a statement.