Military Fails Another Victim of Sexual Violence

The life stories of Jessica Brakey and Abeer Al-Janabi unfold a half a world apart. Yet the former Air Force Academy cadet and the dead Iraqi girl are both powerful symbols of women's experience of sexual assault. The legal tales of both are curiously juxtaposed this fall in the military's sprawling criminal justice system.

Until recently, Brakey was the only woman to see her sexual assault allegations proceed to a court-martial from widely reported Air Force Academy revelations in 2003, though more than 100 women came forward to report assaults in the previous decade. The charges against Air Force Capt. Joseph J. Harding were dismissed Friday afternoon, however, following a long dispute over rape shield law. Harding attorney David Sheldon says delays in the case "did a disservice not only to Capt. Harding but also the administration of fair justice," according to the Associated Press. Sheldon also represents one of the soldiers charged in the Iraqi case.

Not one person has been convicted of rape from the Air Force Academy reports, though a change of venue to a civilian court in Colorado remains possible in the Harding case. One cadet, still at the academy but his future uncertain, pleaded guilty to "indecent acts" and other military conduct offenses. His sentence: a reprimand and a $2,000 fine.

Three years after the public and Congress demanded reform, sexual assaults remain a persistent fact of life in the military, figures from the Pentagon's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response show. "The system facilitates the crime because it's never punished," says Wendy Murphy, a victim rights attorney who represents Jessica Brakey and her civilian therapist. "They have wanted her case to disappear since the beginning."

Pentagon officials say 546 sexual assaults were reported in the Afghanistan and Iraq war theaters from 2002 through August 2006. The vast majority of reports involved service members as both assailant and victim. Dozens of cases involved a military victim and civilian assailant, and a small fraction involved soldiers assaulting civilians. Worldwide, the number of sexual assaults reported in 2005 involving a U.S. service member as an assailant reached 2,374, including 600 civilian victims. Historically, about one in four sexual assaults is reported in the military, though the reporting rate is climbing since victims gained some anonymity last year, officials and advocates say.

It's amid this persistent violence and failed prosecution that charges arose in Mahmoudiyah, Iraq, against four soldiers and one former soldier in the alleged gang rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Al-Janabi. The soldiers--who await a decision from their Fort Campbell, Kentucky, commander on an investigator's recommendation of court-martial--are also charged with premeditated murder of Abeer's mother, her father, and her younger sister. The discharged man has pleaded not guilty in federal court in Kentucky.

"The numbers of sexual assaults being reported indicates that these individuals are not rogues," says Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, a service and advocacy agency for victims of sexual and domestic violence related to the U.S. military. "These are men who utilized the training and tactics of the armed forces when they stalked this young woman and killed the family, and they were part of a system where there's no intervention or punishment for sexual assault."

The commander's role in deciding on a court-martial and choosing those who judge the accused has been the source of military problems with violence against women, numerous Pentagon and independent investigations have concluded. The vast majority of cases, if punished at all, are handled as personnel issues and kept out of the criminal justice system. Even in the 2 to 3 percent of rape cases that go to court-martial, plea agreements and punishments are lenient.

Fort Campbell officials in particular came under intense scrutiny in 1998 and 1999 following the domestic violence homicides of several Army wives there. A "60 Minutes" investigation featured the base and illustrated a dearth of domestic violence prosecutions throughout the services. As a result of the inquiries, Fort Campbell officials now must refer some domestic violence crimes to the U.S. Attorney.

The Al-Janabi rape and murder case hurdled barriers to justice that face many victims of sexual assault and those ethical investigators and prosecutors working to punish the assailants. The crime occurred this spring in the highly charged setting of the U.S. occupation in Iraq and steady news coverage by Al-Jazeera and other Arab news outlets. A resulting global demand for justice precluded the military's customary secrecy.

"All of this starts with disrespect for women," says Hansen, the victim advocate. "These guys never see a deterrent or a punishment that would require them to change their behavior."

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