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Lawmakers move to address U.S. military sex assault problem

U.S. army soldiers are seen marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York, March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
U.S. army soldiers are seen marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York, March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers frustrated by a spate of high-profile military sexual assault cases unveiled draft proposals in the House of Representatives on Tuesday to crack down on the crime, but they stopped short the kind of overhaul sought by some officials.

The Republican-led personnel panel of the House Armed Services Committee proposed additions to the annual defense policy bill that would impose tougher penalties on people who commit sex crimes and would ensure better treatment for victims.

But the panel did not offer changes like those advocated by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, who is pushing a measure that would take responsibility for prosecuting sex crimes out of the victim's chain of command and put it in the hands of specialized prosecutors.

Nancy Parrish, the head of the Protect Our Defenders advocacy group, applauded some of the proposals in the House measure but said that they did not go far enough.

"The House Armed Services Committee is still is not attacking the fundamental problems," she said. "Our elected officials are in charge of oversight over the military and they should exert leadership."

The proposed additions to the National Defense Authorization Act follow a spate of military sexual assault cases that have angered lawmakers and led to calls for legislative action to force the Pentagon to deal more effectively with sex crimes.

A study released by the Defense Department two weeks ago estimated that incidents of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.

The report was released just days after Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, who led the Air Force sexual assault prevention effort, was charged with sexual battery for allegedly grabbing a civilian woman by the breasts and buttocks in a parking lot not far from the Pentagon.

Several days later a U.S. Army sergeant who worked as a sexual assault prevention coordinator at Fort Hood, Texas, was accused of pandering, abusive sexual contact and assault. Sex-related incidents have continued since then.

Brigadier General Bryan Roberts was suspended on Tuesday as commanding general at the U.S. Army Training Center at Fort Jackson in South Carolina while he is investigated on suspicion of adultery and having a physical altercation. The Army declined to give further details of the case.

TOUGHER PENALTIES

The personnel panel in the House Armed Services Committee is due to vote on a series of new measures to address sexual assault when it convenes on Wednesday. A positive vote would send the proposals to full committee for debate on June 5.

The subcommittee moved ahead with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's recommendation that U.S. military law be amended to eliminate the power that senior generals have to review and modify jury verdicts.

That power, which dates to the U.S. colonial period, is no longer needed because the military justice system now has a formal process of judicial review that allows military personnel to appeal their convictions, officials say.

Hagel proposed the change after a Pentagon review that was prompted by two high-profile cases in which generals responsible for overseeing courts-martial set aside the convictions of officers found guilty of sex crimes.

The panel also proposed eliminating the military code's five-year statute of limitations on sexual assault. And it proposed making dismissal or dishonorable discharge from the military the minimum sentence for crimes like rape and sexual assault.

Some advocacy groups have complained that it is unjust - and sends the wrong message - for service members to be allowed to remain in the military after being convicted of sex crimes.

The panel also proposed steps to provide better treatment to victims, including assigning those who report sex crimes with victims counsels - attorneys whose job it is to provide specialized assistance to the victims.

Officials say a victims counsel pilot program started in the Air Force this year has been very successful, with victims much more willing to pursue cases against their assailants.

Defense officials say the Pentagon is studying the proposals and discussing them with lawmakers, but is not voicing support or opposition to any at this point.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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