Obama to restart terror tribunals

US president Barack Obama will announce today that he will resume the Bush-era military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees he once condemned, but with new legal protections for terror suspects.

Mr Obama suspended the tribunals within hours of taking office in January, ordering a review, but stopping short of abandoning President George Bush’s strategy of prosecuting suspected terrorists.

The military trials will remain frozen for another four months as the administration adjusts the legal system that is expected to try fewer than 20 of the 241 detainees currently at the US naval detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Thirteen detainees – including five charged with helping orchestrate the September 11, 2001, attacks – are already in the tribunal system.

The changes to the system will be announced today. Two senior administration officials outlined several of the rules changes, which will be carried out by executive authority. They include:

:: Restrictions on hearsay evidence that can be used in court against the detainees;

:: A ban on all evidence obtained through cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This would include statements given from detainees who were subjected to waterboarding;

:: Giving detainees greater leeway in choosing their own military counsel;

:: Protecting detainees who refuse to testify from legal sanctions or other court prejudices.

The White House may seek additional changes to the military commissions law over the next 120 days, but it was not immediately clear what they could include.

The tribunal system – set up after the military began sweeping detainees off the battlefields of Afghanistan in late 2001 – has been repeatedly challenged by human rights and legal organisations because it denied defendants many of the rights they would be granted in a civilian court.

Republican senator Lindsay Graham called Mr Obama’s decision to revamp and restart the tribunals a step towards strengthening US detention policies that had been derided worldwide.

“I continue to believe it is in our own national security interests to separate ourselves from the past problems of Guantanamo,” Mr Graham said.

“I agree with the president and our military commanders that now is the time to start over and strengthen our detention policies. I applaud the president’s actions today.”

But the move by the new Democratic president is certain to face criticism from liberal groups, already stung by his decision on Wednesday to try to block the court-ordered release of photos showing US troops abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That decision marked a reversal of his earlier stand on making the photos public.

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