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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. military officials will start hearings on Friday for 14 prisoners transferred to Guantanamo Bay from secret CIA jails, including the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Reporters will not be allowed at the hearings at the prison camp in Cuba and will have to rely on edited transcripts, defence officials said on Tuesday, citing concerns that the suspects could reveal sensitive security information.
"I think everybody recognizes that these individuals are unique for the role that they have played in terrorist operations and in combat operations against U.S. forces," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
A rights group condemned the hearings, which are also closed to defence lawyers, as "sham tribunals" and complained that they could consider evidence obtained through coercion.
The 14 suspects were transferred to Guantanamo Bay from overseas CIA prisons in September.
They include Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks, and an Indonesian man known as Hambali, who is accused of planning the 2002 bombings that killed more than 200 people in Bali, Indonesia.
The Pentagon also announced that the latest annual reviews of every detainee's case had identified 55 inmates who could be transferred to their home countries.
The prison camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay holds about 385 suspects accused of fighting for al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated Islamist militant movements.
Indefinite detention and allegations of mistreatment at Guantanamo, which the U.S. military denies, have tarnished the image of the United States abroad. Many countries, including U.S. allies, have called for the camp to be closed.
More than 80 inmates are now awaiting transfer while the United States tries to work out arrangements with their home nations, the Pentagon says.
Lawyers for some of the Guantanamo prisoners said in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday that the suspects had been unlawfully detained for more than five years and deserved at least a hearing to challenge their confinement.
The hearings due to begin at Guantanamo on Friday, known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), are to determine whether the 14 suspects should be designated enemy combatants. Such hearings were not previously closed to outside observers.
The Centre for Constitutional Rights, which represents one of the 14, Pakistani national Majid Khan, condemned the hearings and complained that their client had not had access to a defence lawyer.
"Any suggestion that Khan's CSRT proceedings would comport with our values and traditional notions of justice is demeaning to all Americans," the New York-based rights group said.
"We might expect this in Libya or China, but not America."
U.S. officials suspect Khan has had links with alleged September 11 mastermind Mohammed, according to Khan's Pakistani lawyer.
The hearings take place before a three-member panel of military officers. The Pentagon said it would release a transcript of each hearing together with an unclassified summary of the case against the suspect.
"The transcript of the proceedings will have to be redacted for any matters of national security," Whitman said.
Defence officials did not intend to release the name of the inmate under review in the transcript but, following complaints from reporters, said they would reconsider that plan.
Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami