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Senate Hearing Questions Military's Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

Senate Hearing Questions Military's Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

March 14, 2013 — A Senate Armed Services subcommittee on Wednesday held the first hearing on sexual assault in the military in nearly 10 years, the Daily Beast reports. The full-day hearing featured two panels: one of military officials from each branch of the armed forces and one of sexual assault survivors and advocates.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), chair of the subcommittee, said she called the hearing because "[t]oo often, women and men have found themselves in the fight of their lives not in the theater of war but in their own ranks ... in an environment that enables sexual assault."

According to Pentagon estimates, 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred in 2010, but only 13.5% of those incidents were reported, leading to only 191 convictions. Gillibrand said that in 2011, only 240 sexual assault cases proceeded to trial (Green, Daily Beast, 3/14). In addition, only 8% of accused assaulters are sent to military court, compared with 40% of similar offenders in civilian court cases, according to a 2010 study by the Department of Defense.

Sexual assault survivors who testified at the hearing described the difficulties they faced trying to seek help in the aftermath of the attacks. Victims often are pressured not to report the attacks, while those that do risk ending their careers, they said (Levs/Fantz, CNN, 3/14).

Anu Bhagwati, a former service member and co-founder of the Service Women's Action Network, said, "Many of the women who were impacted by these incidents, including me, are no longer in the military," while the officers involved have retired or remain in the military (Daily Beast, 3/14).

Role of Commanders

According to the AP/Sacramento Bee, some service members who are accused -- and even convicted -- of sexual assault are able to remain in the military because their commanders are given sole discretion in courts-martial to reduce or overturn verdicts made by a jury.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) noted that military commanders are "not trained in law, and yet [have] the role of being a judge, making the decision if a case will move forward, who is going to serve time or walk away" (Mendoza, AP/Sacramento Bee, 3/13).

All five military officials who testified at the hearing said they support maintaining the current system, in which convening officer or unit commanders determine whether to report a crime and how it is handled (Daily Beast, 3/14).

Bhagwati said Congress should grant "convening authority over criminal cases to trained, professional, disinterested prosecutors. Commanding officers cannot make truly impartial decisions because of their professional affiliation with the accused, and oftentimes with the victim as well." She said civil courts also should to be opened to service members who have been sexually assaulted (CNN, 3/14).

Another witness at the hearing, Brian Lewis, was the first male victim to testify in front of Congress on sexual assault in the military. He noted that prevention efforts should focus on both men and women. Fifty-six percent of military sexual assaults in 2010 involved male victims, according to a military report (Daily Beast, 3/14).