By Will Dunham in Washington
The Pentagon has named a chief prosecutor and defence counsel and begun seeking civilian defence lawyers for trials of suspected terrorists in a key step towards bringing Guantanamo Bay prisoners before military commissions.
Colonel Frederic Borch, named acting chief prosecutor, rejected criticism by some legal experts that the Pentagon's rules for the trials strongly favoured the prosecution and greatly restricted the defence.
Colonel Borch indicated the defendants would be among the roughly 680 prisoners from dozens of nations being held as "unlawful combatants" without charges or legal representation at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Any trials are expected to be held there.
Colonel Borch declined to say how many would be prosecuted, noting that President George Bush must first declare which prisoners are eligible to be brought before such tribunals, consisting of three to seven military officers. Colonel Borch said he had studied the cases against at least 10 possible defendants and anticipated making recommendations on who should be prosecuted.
In November 2001 Mr Bush authorised military commission trials, which would be the first of their kind since those after World War II.
The trials were ordered after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US and the war launched in Afghanistan to crush al-Qaeda, which was blamed for those attacks.
Defence Department officials issued instructions for the trials earlier this month. Some legal experts argue they were crafted to make winning convictions and getting the death penalty as easy as possible.
They point to a series of restrictions placed on defence lawyers - including monitoring of all conversations with defendants - and a lack of guidelines on charges that could bring the death penalty.
"To some extent, these things are not set up to give a fair trial, but set up to compel guilty pleas out of people," said Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights.
The Pentagon said it would accept applications from civilian lawyers interested in working alongside military defence lawyers assigned by the Defence Department.
The US and Saudi Arabia had reached an agreement to repatriate Saudi nationals held at Guantanamo Bay, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said on Thursday.
He also said the US was close to reaching a similar deal with another country, but did not give details.
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