US to revive military terror trials

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama's administration is to announce Friday it will retain Bush-era military commissions to try some terror suspects, but with improved legal safeguards, an official said.

The move, word of which has already faced tough opposition from rights groups, reflects the thick tangle of legal and national security arguments Obama is facing as he attempts to overhaul the legal struggle against terrorism.

Obama halted the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals pending a review soon after taking office in January, saying the system as it stood did not work, but did not rule out the use of a modified tribunal system in future.

An administration official, who requested anonymity, said an announcement on a new military tribunals system would be made on Friday.

The new legal framework, to try only the most prominent Al-Qaeda suspects now at the Guantanamo Bay war on terror camp in Cuba, would include restrictions on the use of hearsay evidence against detainees.

The revisions would also reportedly ban evidence obtained through coercion, such as waterboarding and other enhanced CIA interrogation techniques.

The move would affect, among others, five detainees charged with having played key roles in the September 11, 2001 attacks, including the plot's self-proclaimed mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Republicans have fiercely assailed Obama's order to close Guantanamo Bay by late January next year, and Democrats have rejected a White House funding request to shutter the prison.

The camp, synonymous around the world with former US president George W. Bush's "war on terror" excesses, still holds 241 inmates from 30 different countries, according to the Pentagon.

For weeks, Republicans have attacked Obama for ordering the facility's closure and the suspension of military commissions, saying the president did not have a plan for what to do with the prisoners.

Republican Senator John McCain, who spearheaded legislation creating the commissions, said such trials were the only adequate venue for trying suspected terrorists and that he was working with the White House on a way forward.

The Obama administration official said the president had consistently backed military commissions as an option to try detainees, but believed the version used by the Bush administration did not have sufficient due process protections.

That system only convicted three detainees in eight years.

Some rights groups have called on the administration to prosecute Al-Qaeda detainees in the regular US court system, but opponents have warned that evidence, possibly obtained under coercion, would not stand up.

US Department of Justice memos released in April revealed that Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in a single month.

"The Obama administration shouldn't tinker with a fundamentally flawed system," Human Rights Watch (HRW) counter-terrorism adviser Stacy Sullivan said this week.

"Reviving the military commissions would strip much of the meaning from closing Guantanamo." Tom Parker of Amnesty International said the president would be making "a disastrous misstep" if he revived the commissions after blasting them as "an enormous failure" on the campaign trail last year.

Some of Obama's liberal backers have already registered outrage this week after the president decided to try to block the release of more photos of abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan at US facilities, fearing they could expose American troops to reprisals abroad.

That decision, critics have argued, has thrown into question Obama's promised new era of transparency and the rule of law.

David Axelrod, one of the president's closest advisers, countered that Obama's "positions on transparency and public disclosure are strong and well known.

"But," he told PBS public television, "they're not without limit."