US legislators have expressed outrage over the military justice system's failure to deal effectively with rape and sexual assault crimes, saying a system that had about 19,000 cases a year but only brought 240 to trial was not working.
Legislators also challenged military legal experts who told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that commanding generals should have the final say over verdicts by military juries, including the ability to throw out convictions and sentences, because it helped them to maintain order and discipline.
"I don't know how you can say that having 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is discipline and order," Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who chaired the Senate panel, said. "It is the exact opposite of discipline and order."
The day-long hearing on sexual assault in the military followed a spate of high-profile incidents that have highlighted the issue, including a scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas in which 59 recruits were assaulted by drill instructors.
In another case at Aviano Air Base in Italy where Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson had his sexual assault conviction overturned by a top commander who threw out his one-year prison sentence and dismissal from the Air Force and returned him to duty.
Survivors told the panel of senators that the US military justice system is broken and rife with instances of impunity for sexual crimes.
Retired Marine Corps Captain Anu Bhagwati, who founded the Service Women's Action Network, told the panel she experienced daily discrimination and sexual harassment during her time in the service and ultimately was forced out when she lodged a complaint against an offending officer.
"I witnessed reports of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment swept under the rug by a handful of field grade officers," she said.
"Perpetrators were promoted, were transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims."
She noted that sexual assault crimes affected both men and women in the service and the Pentagon estimated there were 19,300 sexual assaults in 2010, with 8,600 of the victims being female and 10,700 being male.
Senator Richard Blumenthal urged a group of top Pentagon lawyers who also appeared before the panel to consider the
problem with the same sense of urgency as that given to defeating improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"This problem is the equivalent of an IED in every unit of the armed forces. It is the equivalent of an immensely destructive force, which the Aviano case has brought to the public's attention in a very dramatic way," he said.
"This issue really demands immediate action. And not just tinkering around the edges," Blumenthal said.
Chuck Hagel, the defence secretary, has directed the Pentagon's top lawyer this week to look into issues in the Aviano case and whether the convening authority should have the power to overturn jury verdicts before an appeals process even begins.