"There still are major problems in terms of whether the trial will be fair and, more important, will they be perceived as fair," Roth said.
The government has pledged to make the proceedings more transparent by broadcasting the hearing to families at U.S. military bases. News cameras, however, are still not permitted inside the courtroom, where the media and other observers are kept behind double-paned, soundproof glass.
Lawyers for the defendants had opposed the government's plan to show the hearings just to the families.
"We believe that the world needs to see what's happening," said Cheryl Bormann, a civilian attorney appointed to represent defendant Walid bin 'Attash.
Prisoners now have access, at government expense, to civilian defense attorneys who specialize in complex death penalty cases. But human rights groups and defense lawyers still condemn the proceedings as flawed and fundamentally unfair.
Lawyers appointed to represent the men say they face hurdles they would never encounter in a civilian court, including strict limits on what they can say about their clients, whose every utterance is treated as presumptively classified.
"All I can do is try and protect my client's rights to every extent I can and try and hold the government to their burden to provide a fair and transparent justice system and to actually mean it," Bormann said.
Mohammed and his co-defendants were first arraigned on the U.S. base in Cuba in June 2008. The case quickly bogged down in pretrial motions and was put on hold as Obama sought to move the case to the federal court in New York.
But members of Congress balked and blocked the administration from transferring prisoners from the base to the mainland. That prevented the closure of the prison, where the U.S. still holds 169 prisoners.
"There is a consensus now ... that military commissions have a narrow but critical role in our counterterrorism and justice system," said Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama's who was appointed chief prosecutor last year.
Mohammed, a Pakistani citizen who grew up in Kuwait and attended college in Greensboro, N.C., confessed to military authorities that he planned or carried out about 30 plots around the world. He admitted personally killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and said he conceived the plot to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight by would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid in 2001. Mohammed was captured in 2003 in Pakistan.
His four co-defendants include Binalshibh, a Yemeni, was allegedly chosen to be a hijacker but couldn't get a U.S. visa and ended up providing assistance such as finding flight schools; Waleed bin Attash, also from Yemen, allegedly ran an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan and researched flight simulators and timetables; Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, a Saudi accused of helping the hijackers with money, Western clothing, traveler's checks and credit cards; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, a Pakistani national and nephew of KSM, allegedly provided money to the hijackers.
All five face charges that include 2,976 counts of murder, one for each person killed in the Sept. 11 plot that brought down the trade center and four hijacked jetliners.
The official 9/11 death toll grew to 2,977 last year, when New York City added the name of a man who died of lung disease attributed to exposure to toxic trade center dust. The Guantanamo charges will remain unchanged.
Roth, who will be part of a human rights contingent observing Saturday's arraignment at Guantanamo, said the prosecution can work around the ban on coerced testimony, perhaps even unwittingly, by introducing classified summaries of intelligence to support their case.
Even with the changes, the defense lawyers say the commissions are anything but fair. They complain that their mail is improperly reviewed by the military, interfering with attorney-client privilege, that they aren't given enough resources to investigate cases the government spent years building, that too many hearings are still held in secret and that they are barred from disclosing anything their clients tell them.