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Austin backs changes to military sex assault cases

GENERAL AUSTIN: “I fully support removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and other related crimes from the military's chain of command.”

In a major break from his predecessors, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday said he supported changing how the military prosecutes sexual assault and related crimes, saying these cases should be removed from the chain of command.

GENERAL AUSTIN: “As you know, my first directive as secretary of defense issued on my first full day in office was to service leadership about sexual assault…We are prepared to work with Congress to amend the uniform code of justice in this regard…We must treat this as a leadership issue as it is.”

Advocates and lawmakers have been calling for years for the military commanders to be taken out of the decision-making process when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault cases, many of which are never even reported.

SEN. GILLIBRAND: “We have zero tolerance for sexual assault.”

U.S. lawmakers – like Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – earlier on Wednesday welcomed Austin’s unprecedented support and said they would press ahead with efforts to change the law.

A bi-partisan bill introduced and named for Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen, who was murdered after reporting sexual harassment, would shift prosecution of these cases from the chain of command and make it the responsibility of trained military prosecutors.

SEN. GILLIBRAND: “Today's the first time we have a secretary of defense who agrees sexual assault should be taken out of the chain of command. That's a big deal, because it’s a recognition that the chain of command is not inviolate. It is not the most important thing. What’s the most important thing is that the men and women of the armed forces have a criminal justice system that is worthy of the sacrifice they make every day in serving our country. That is our responsibility.”

Guillen was based at Fort Hood, Texas and was 20 when she was bludgeoned to death. Her body was found mutilated and buried in a shallow grave.

In December, an investigative panel looking into violent crimes and abuse at the largest active-duty armored post in the U.S., said it had found a command structure that was "permissive" of sexual assaults.

Some senior military officials have stopped short of endorsing the move, arguing that preserving commanders' authority over prosecutions is vital to maintaining discipline.

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