WASHINGTON (AFP) -US military authorities announced changes to the military commissions that will try detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to make the trials "more like a judge and jury model", the Pentagon said.
But critics of the special tribunals called the changes "window dressing" that would not lead to fair and open hearings.
The changes will make the tribunals”s presiding officers function "more like a judge", while positioning the other panel members more like a jury, said the Pentagon in a statement.
The presiding officer will decide most questions of law, the Pentagon said, and the other panel members will determine commission findings and decide any sentence of the accused.
In the earlier structure of the commissions, which began hearing cases last year, the three panel members together determined findings, decided legal questions and set sentences.
The Defense Department also clarified rules on the presence of the accused at his own trial, and his access to classified information.
Under the new provisions, the accused will be present except when necessary to protect classified information, and when the presiding officer rules that admitting such information would not render the trial unfair, the Pentagon said.
The changes were made in response to "lessons learned from military commissions proceedings that began in late 2004" and "a review of relevant domestic and international legal standards," as well as suggestions from outside organizations, it said.
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which had strongly criticized the earlier tribunal setup, assailed the rule changes as "purely semantics and window dressing" that "do not provide for substantive improvements or access to fair and open hearings".
After winning an appeals court challenge to the special commissions in July, the Pentagon was moving quickly to try four detained "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo, whose preliminary hearings last year were stopped by the court challenge.
The trials of Yemeni Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the former chauffeur of Osama bin Laden, and "Australian Taliban" David Hicks, could resume in September, according to military sources.
"The most recent manipulations of the military commission procedures represent a desperate attempt to salvage the failed commission process and a confirmation that Mr. Hicks will not receive a fair trial," Joshua Dratel and Major Michael Mori, Hicks”s lawyers, said in a statement.
"The meaningless changes admit that the military commission is flawed."