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US Secretary of Defense Challenges Status Quo; Protects MIlitary Victims of Sexual Assault

APRIL 12, 2013
Kath Cummins

Washington, DC--This week Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel took a critically important first step towards ensuring that the thousands of men and women who serve in our military and are victims of sexual assault will get the justice and due process they deserve.

By asking Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to remove the power of commanding authorities to review and overturn verdicts in serious case like sexual assault, Secretary Hagel is acknowledging that the antiquated US Military Court-Martial system stands as the key obstacle in the brave and often life-destroying battle fought by victims of sexual assault in the military.

The Defense Secretary is right to say that the system’s inability to deal justly with this crime not only destroys individual lives and careers, but also damages the military as an institution.

“Secretary Hagel’s battle cry for reform, however, should rally Congress to pass much broader changes to the UMCJ,” said Mai Fernandez Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. “Thirty years ago, enshrining victims’ rights into the civilian criminal law seemed to be a revolutionary idea.  However, today victims’ rights have been effectively integrated into our criminal justice system.  The military should embark on a similarly daring crusade.”

Crime victims’ rights are not included in the Uniform Code of Military Justice – at best they are recognized by some officers as a matter of policy.  Secretary Hagel should take this opportunity to also ask Congress to codify victims’ rights under military law.  This will ensure that they have the weight and authority to be enforced in a military proceeding. 

These rights will also need to be enforced. The National Center for Victims of Crime has backed the pioneering program begun early this year in the US Air Force, which created 60 independent legal representatives for victims of sexual assault. We now call on Secretary Hagel to extend this program to all branches of the US Military.

These special victims’ attorneys operate separately from military prosecutors or defense attorneys, offering a specialized counsel that coordinates all the legal and non-legal services that have to be understood and navigated by victims.

“We need a military justice system where justice is taken out of the chain of command, victims’ rights are made part of the UMCJ and where victims are provided with counsel to uphold their rights,” said the National Center’s Executive Director, Mai Fernandez.

Secretary Hagel's Statement

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