Doctors on front line of the public relations battle

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The Independent US

Lieutenant Sonya Kurichh speaks six languages, four fluently. She is 29 years old and her Indian grandfather, a firm believer that everybody should serve one's country for at least two years, encouraged her to join the military. This past week she has been operating on people who will not look her in the eye.

"It's a little different [to normal]" said Ms Kurichh, a member of the medical team that has been assembled to look after the needs of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. "They tend to look down rather than at me ... because I am a female. It is also possibly because my ethnic background is Indian. Sometimes you'll hear them saying a prayer because they think that being touched by a woman will contaminate them."

Ms Kurichh has been at Guantanamo Bay only a few days but already she has been involved in at least two operations on prisoners that required a general anaesthetic. One of the prisoners, who had an old shrapnel wound in his foot from a land mine, knew enough English to speak to her when he came round. "He said, 'Thank you doctor'," she said. Such sweet anecdotes are the sort of thing the American military here at Guantanamo Bay is keen to project.

Amid intense international controversy over the treatment of the mostly Afghan 158 Taliban and al-Qa'ida prisoners being held, the joint task force that runs Camp X-Ray is determined to show its sceptical critics that it is doing all it can to treat the men as fairly and humanely as possible.

Medical treatment is one way the military thinks it can help to turn the public relations war. This week it was putting together a field hospital costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, which could grow into a facility with 500 beds.

The medical administrators overseeing the hospital say they have 161 medical personnel to treat the prisoners, conveniently outnumbering them at the current levels.

Captain Mat Alford, the naval commander of the so-called Fleet hospital, said: "This is the same facility that we would use to take care of our own people overseas, either in support of a military or a humanitarian operation."

Security is still a serious issue. Patients brought to surgery at the permanent Guantanamo Bay medical centre arrive shackled and remain chained unless that interferes with the operation. At least one guard, wearing surgical clothes, stays in the operating theatre during the procedure.

Ms Kurichh said she felt nervous when treating the men, to whom she speaks in their native Urdu. She is also fluent in Hindi, Punjabi and English. "You have to watch out for your pens," she said, a reference to an incident several years ago when an al-Qa'ida suspect stabbed a prison guard in the eye with a comb handle.

In addition to the attention being paid to medical treatment the joint task force is bending in other ways as it seeks to deflect criticism of its treatment of the prisoners.

General Michael Lehnert, the task force commander, has admitted that many of the procedures are under review. These include forcing the prisoners to wear blacked-out goggles and shaving their heads. The latest issue was placed under review after consultation with the Muslim cleric Lieutenant Abuhena Mohammad Saiful-Islam, who has been leading the prisoners in prayer.

The general said: "Obviously we do not intend to shave anybody for some time now.

"We now have time to look at this and make a considered and informed decision. Hair does not grow up that fast. Nobody is being shaved."

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