WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama will restart Bush-era military tribunals for a small number of Guantanamo detainees, reviving a fiercely disputed trial system he once denounced but with new legal protections for terror suspects, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Obama suspended the tribunals within hours of taking office in January, ordering a review but stopping short of abandoning President George W. 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 U.S. naval detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Thirteen detainees – including five charged with helping orchestrate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – are already in the tribunal system.

The changes to the system were to be announced Friday. Two senior administration officials outlined several of the rules changes, which will be carried out by executive authority, to The Associated Press on Thursday night. 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 Thursday what they could include. The two senior administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama had not yet announced the changes.

The tribunal system – set up after the military began sweeping detainees off the battlefields of Afghanistan in late 2001 – has been under repeated challenges from human rights and legal organizations because it denied defendants many of the rights they would be granted in a civilian courtroom.

In a statement late Thursday, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., called Obama’s decision to revamp and restart the tribunals a step toward strengthening U.S. detention policies that have been derided worldwide.

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

Yet the move by the new Democratic president is certain to face criticism from liberal groups, already stung by his decision Wednesday to try to block the court-ordered release of photos showing U.S. 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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