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Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin announced on Tuesday that he would support changes in the military justice system to take sexual abuse crimes out of the chain of command and have them evaluated by independent military lawyers.
In a statement, Austin said that in the coming days he will present President Joe Biden with a series of recommendations aimed at “finally ending the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military.”
Austin’s remarks represent a radical departure from the Pentagon’s traditional stance, which for decades has resisted the intervention of independent lawyers, believing that commanders are best equipped to decide whether to press charges in the face of sexual harassment and abuse allegations.
Austin, who will testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, said he wants to work with Congress to bring about those changes in the military justice system.
However, he did not express his views on any of the legislative bills that have been introduced recently to address that problem.
One of those initiatives, pushed by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, goes beyond what Austin said today and seeks to have all crimes, including murder and sexual abuse, handled by independent military lawyers, rather than members of the chain of command.
In addition, in the House of Representatives, Democrat Jackie Speier and Republican Mike Turner have introduced another legislative bill similar to Gillibrand’s and named after Hispanic soldier Vanessa Guillen, who was killed while working at Fort Hood (Texas).
The 20-year-old soldier disappeared in April 2020 after telling her family that she had been sexually harassed by one of her sergeants.
Her mutilated remains were found near the Leon River, where they were buried by her alleged killer, fellow base officer Aaron David Robinson, who committed suicide when police went to question him.
The case of Guillen, of Mexican descent, drew national attention in the United States and exposed the need for changes in the way the Armed Forces investigate cases of sexual abuse and harassment.