I wasn't told he had no windows, says father of Guantanamo Briton

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The Independent Online

Four Britons held in Guantanamo Bay have had the conditions of their detention relaxed, raising their families' hopes that they could soon be free.

Four Britons held in Guantanamo Bay have had the conditions of their detention relaxed, raising their families' hopes that they could soon be free.

For the first time since they were arrested nearly three years ago, US authorities have agreed to install windows in the men's cells and allow them to take daily exercise. The Foreign Office indicated that the concessions showed that diplomatic pressure was paying off.

But one of the fathers of the British captives said the news had been badly handled by the Foreign Office. Azmat Begg, a retired banker from Birmingham, said he had not been aware that his son, Moazzam Begg, was being kept in a cell without any natural light. He said: "When the Foreign Office official telephoned me to tell about how they had managed to fix a window in Moazzam's cell I was very upset. They hadn't bothered mentioning the fact that up until then he was being locked away in the dark."

Mr Begg has campaigned tirelessly for the release of his son, who was arrested while travelling with his family in Pakistan. In the next few weeks Moazzam and the three other British detainees are expected to be taken from their cells and brought before special hearings to review the legal status of their detention.

The move follows a US Supreme Court ruling that gave the US justice system jurisdiction over the right and conditions of nearly 600 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Privately, British officials do not expect these hearings to have any immediate "material effect" on the Britons' prospects of release. But news that the Americans have relaxed the conditions of the men's detention is being interpreted that they may be being prepared for release.

The four, Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar have been held in Guantanamo Bay for more than two and half years without knowing the nature of the crimes they are accused of. All have been moved from outside "cages" to cells with "sleeping and washing facilities."

Mr Begg and Feroz Abbasi had been earmarked for appearances in the first round of "military commissions" but the Foreign Office confirmed that both men's trials had been "suspended". A Foreign Office spokesman said the only obstacle to securing the men's release were US concerns over security. "In the absence of a fair trial, the Prime Minister has requested to President Bush that they should be returned to the UK. They have security concerns and they are trying to address them," he said.

The Americans had similar concerns about the five other Britons held in Guantanamo who were freed earlier this year.

Mr Begg said he had not been informed about the new review hearing that his son was due to appear before. He said: "The Foreign Office has made no effort to tell me about these new tribunals nor when my son is appearing. But that has been happening for nearly three years now. It is no surprise to me at all." But he added: "I don't think that he is physically or mentally fit to face a trial."

He said the pressure on his son's wife and children, who had to return to Britain after Moazzam's arrest, had become almost intolerable. "The youngest boy was born while my son was held by the Americans. But the oldest girl remembers when the night he was taken [in Pakistan]. She is seven and cries for her father to come home. When I went to America to protest for his release she begged me not to go. 'They took my daddy, I don't want them to take you,' she said when I left."

He added that his son's wife was "sick" with worry. "It is becoming harder and harder to carry on. If Tony Blair wanted Mr Bush to send my son home then he only has to ask. That's quite clear."

The Foreign Office said the concessions had been won after British officials visited the US naval base in Cuba last month. The spokesman said: "There were concerns about their lack of exercise, access to natural light and delays in receiving letters from home.

"They are in sound physical health but they have increasing frustrations about their continued detention. We've raised individual health [mental health] concerns with the Americans who have addressed them." All of the British detainees are able to practise their religion and have access to reading and writing material, he added.

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, has already won agreement from the Americans that none of the British suspects will face the death penalty whatever the outcome of their trials.

The new Combatant Status Review Tribunals being conducted by the US this week have been criticised by human rights groups as a "sham" after it emerged that three military officers will sit on the panel.

Nearly 600 prisoners from more than 40 countries are held at the base in eastern Cuba, some since January 2002. Only a handful have been allowed lawyers. Most have had no contact with the outside world except letters from home censored by the military.