Pentagon unveils new measures against sexual assaults

Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon on July 31, 2013. The Pentagon announced new measures on Thursday to combat sexual assault in the military but stopped short of stripping commanders of legal authority o
Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon on July 31, 2013. The Pentagon announced new measures on Thursday to combat sexual assault in the military but stopped short of stripping commanders of legal authority over the criminal cases as demanded by many lawmakers. -- FILE PHOTO: AP

WASHINGTON, District of Columbia (AFP) - The Pentagon announced new measures on Thursday to combat sexual assault in the military but stopped short of stripping commanders of legal authority over the criminal cases as demanded by many lawmakers.

The moves, unveiled in a memo from Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, include ensuring legal representation for sexual assault victims at every step of the judicial process, allowing victims to offer testimony at sentencing hearings and providing more scrutiny from the Pentagon's inspector general.

"All of these measures will provide victims additional rights, protections, and legal support, and help ensure that sexual assault-related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally," Mr Hagel said in his memo to department staff members.

The White House praised the initiatives as "substantial" but added that it was "only a step along a path toward eliminating this crime from our military ranks." Some of Mr Obama's fellow Democrats, however, dismissed the measures as paltry in the face of such a serious problem.

Representative Jackie Speier called the initiatives mere "baby steps" that codified practices already in place.

"These aren't new policies. We need sweeping changes; not the best of what's not working. I continue to be underwhelmed by the military's baby steps on this issue," the Democrat said in a release.

Ms Speier and other lawmakers are urging an overhaul of the military justice system to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command, as they argue victims remain reluctant to come forward to avoid damaging their career prospects.

Under the current system, commanders decide whether a case should go to trial, who should sit on a jury for a court-martial and can overturn a verdict or revise sentences for those convicted.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has led a push to take away the commanders' authority in sexual assault cases, said the Pentagon's latest measures were "positive" but "not the leap forward required" to stem the scourge.

"As we have heard over and over again from the victims, and the top military leadership themselves, there is a lack of trust in the system that has a chilling effect," the senator said.

"It is time for Congress to seize the opportunity, listen to the victims and create an independent, objective and non-biased military justice system."

Top officers have acknowledged sexual assault cases constitute a crisis in the force but have rejected the idea of rewriting the judicial code as misguided, saying commanders are best placed to attack the problem.