Congress approves limited protections for military sexual assault victims

Attached to defense bill, legislation aims to fight scourge of sexual violence and rape, but advocates are skeptical

Congress has passed legislation to try to stop sexual assault in the U.S. military.
Larry Downing/Reuters

Congress passed a comprehensive defense bill it says will crack down on sexual assault in the military and add protections for victims. But advocates for assault survivors say the bill does not do enough to quell the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. The Pentagon has estimated that 26,000 members of the military may have been sexually assaulted last year – a 37 percent increase over 2011.

The legislation would strip military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and require that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal.

The reform also would provide victims with legal counsel, eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases, and criminalize retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault.

President Barack Obama commended the Pentagon leadership "for their hard work on this critical issue of viral importance to our nation." He also said Sens. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-MO, have rightly called attention to the urgency of eradicating this scourge from the armed forces.

While Gillibrand led a strong campaign in support of a military justice system overhaul, her proposal was not included in the defense bill. The New York senator's Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) would have removed the decision to prosecute sexual assault crimes from the victim's chain of command, and enlisted independent military prosecutors instead. The amendment would have taken the authority away from commanders, and consequently drew strong opposition from the Pentagon and several lawmakers.

Advocates say Gillibrand’s legislation would address the root cause of the sexual assault epidemic in the military, and encourage victims to speak up. Around one in five female service members currently reports having experienced sexual contact in the military. Yet, a stunning 86 percent of victims do not report the crime for fears of retribution, according to the Department of Defense.

“Service men and women deserve a professional and unbiased justice system equal the system afforded to the civilians they protect,” Nancy Parrish, director of Protect our Defenders, a national advocacy organization for military sexual assault survivors, said.

"We have come too far in our fight to effectively address the crisis of military sexual assault and subsequent victim retaliation to stop now. We see this as a minor setback on the road to fundamental reform.”

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of SWAN and a former Marine Corps captain, said she is disappointed Congress did not include Gillibrand’s proposal as an amendment to the defense bill.

"Congress has chosen to sidestep the most important military justice reform to come across its desk in history, once again leaving sexual assault victims devastated and betrayed by inaction,” she said.

But the fight is not over, she added.

"The majority of the American people and justice are on our side. Senator Gillibrand has introduced her reform as a stand-alone bill. We must continue to fight for justice for our troops by demanding Congress bring this important legislation to the floor for a vote."

Gillibrand's MJIA act is likely to get a separate vote, perhaps as early as next month.

The congressional effort leading up to the defense bill was marked by one of the most contentious hearings, when senators dressed down senior military leaders and insisted that sexual assault in the military had cost the services the trust and respect of the American people as well as the nation's men and women in uniform.

Summoned to Capitol Hill in June, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the beribboned four-star chiefs of the service branches conceded in an extraordinary hearing that they had faltered in dealing with sexual assault. One said assaults were "like a cancer" in the military.

Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, grilled the chiefs about their knowledge of gender-based violence and competency in dealing with sexual assault crimes.

"Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together," Gillibrand said.

Lisa De Bode contributed to this report. Al Jazeera and The Associated Press.

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