By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers expressed outrage on Wednesday over the military justice system's failure to deal effectively with rape and sexual assault crimes, saying a system that had some 19,000 cases a year but only brought 240 to trial was not working.
Lawmakers also challenged military legal experts who told a Senate hearing 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," said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who chaired the Senate panel. "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.
Lawmakers were angered by a 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.
Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, - the "convening authority" or officer with final say over Wilkerson's court martial - reviewed the trial record and concluded that despite the jury verdict the evidence was insufficient to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Sexual assault is a heinous and violent crime, and it must be treated as such," said Senator Barbara Boxer, who testified before the panel. "It isn't an internal matter. It is a violent crime, and it must be treated as such."
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 added.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the Pentagon's top lawyer this week to look into issues in the Aviano case and whether the convening authority - a tradition that dates to the era of the Continental Congress prior to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution - should have the power to overturn jury verdicts before an appeals process even begins.
"I believe that we have to look very carefully about whether there is a continuing value to the authority ... to throw out findings, to reject findings of a military trial," Robert Taylor, the Pentagon's acting general counsel, told the panel.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a lawyer in the Air Force Reserves, said the system was "way too indifferent" toward sexual assault crimes and had issues that needed to be fixed. But he urged his fellow lawmakers not to "over-indict the system."
He said military justice bars close personal relationships, sexual or otherwise, encourages respect and aims to instill "good order and discipline" while protecting the individual rights of those who may be wrongfully accused.
But Boxer said: "I'm here to talk about the violent crime of sexual assault in the military, not about fraternization. I'm not here to talk about disrespect, but about vicious crimes. And I'm not here to talk about false charges, but about real charges and the way they're handled."
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 sexual assault crimes affected both men and women in the service. She said the Pentagon estimated there were 19,300 sexual assaults in 2010, with 8,600 of the victims being female and 10,700 being male.
The services have been taking steps to address the problem, implementing programs to help the victims of assaults, trying to prevent victim intimidation and creating special units to deal with the crimes. Both Hagel and his predecessor, Leon Panetta, have made dealing with the issue a top priority.
But Bhagwati urged Congress to take further action, saying, "Military leadership cannot solve this problem on its own."
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Jackie Frank)