TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Tamils Are Still Facing Torture and Sexual Attacks

Tamil demonstrators protest outside Downing Street in  London
Tamil demonstratorsprotest Sri Lanka's human rights record outside Downing Street in London in November 2013. © Luke MacGregor / Reuters—REUTERS

Years after the civil war's end, Tamil survivors say they are subject to systematic violence from security forces

A damning new report alleges that Sri Lanka’s security forces continue to persecute the country’s Tamils minority five years after the ending of the country’s bloody civil war. It claims that the policy is “approved by the highest levels of government.”

The report, produced by South African human rights lawyer and U.N. adviser Yasmin Sooka, the Bar Human Rights Committee, England and Wales, and the International Truth & Justice Project, Sri Lanka, is based on the testimony of 40 survivors who fled to the U.K. seeking refuge. Nearly half tried to commit suicide.

The authors compiled harrowing tales of severe torture and sexual abuse in custody, almost all of which took took place after the war ended, some as recently as Feb. 2014.

“The cases of torture, rape and sexual violence described in this report are just a small sample of those crimes likely to have been committed against Tamils,” said Sooka in a statement. “The international community must act now otherwise such atrocities will continue to define post-conflict Sri Lanka.”

The United Nation’s Human Rights Council will vote today on whether to launch an international probe into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes during the three-decades-long ethnic conflict that ended in 2009.

 

TIME Military

When the Skit Hits the Fan: The Army’s Sexual-Assault Woes Persist

Army General To Enter Into Plea Deal In Military Sexual Assault Case
Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the Fort Bragg Courthouse on Monday. Davis Turner / Getty Images

The trial of a general accused of sexual assault has only highlighted the Army's problem

To its credit, the Army itself spotlighted the sexual-assault rot pervading the service this week during the case of Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair. But it only highlighted what appears to have been a messy consensual affair gone sour because Sinclair embarrassed the service by getting caught.

On Thursday, Colonel James Pohl reprimanded Sinclair, 51, a former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, and ordered him to pay a $20,000 fine. But the military judge sentenced him to no jail time, stemming from a plea deal in which Sinclair pleaded guilty to adultery (a crime in the U.S. military) with a female Army captain, 34, in Afghanistan, and related charges. Following the sentencing, Sinclair smiled and hugged his attorneys.

The case against him fell apart after the accuser, who charged Sinclair with sexual assault two years ago, was suspected of perjury during a pretrial hearing, and after word surfaced that a senior Army officer may have improperly rejected, for political reasons, an earlier plea offer from Sinclair.

The collapse of the prosecution, and the resulting minimal punishment, makes it inconclusive for those advocating major changes in how the military handles sexual assaults.

But the real key to the issue of sexual assault in the Army isn’t about the case. Rather, it’s what the court martial highlighted about acceptable actions in today’s Army. On Tuesday, during the final day of a two-day sentencing hearing at Fort Bragg, N.C., Army prosecutors rolled out an officer’s account of a skit performed for Sinclair’s benefit as he prepared to leave his assignment in Germany.

The fact that the skit happened isn’t as important as the reaction of those involved.

Lieut. Colonel Benjamin Bigelow testified that the 2010 going-away party for Sinclair featured a raunchy skit involving two male soldiers, one playing Sinclair, and the other his primary accuser. The character playing the female captain, wearing a brown wig like the accuser’s hair, “moved in front of the Sinclair character’s crotch,” Bigelow said, “and offered to do something for him.” Much of the crowd laughed loudly. “She was offering to give him oral sex.”

The reactions to the skit were telling:

—For the audience: It suggested that those watching would understand the reference. It indicates that such behavior was tolerated, if not condoned, and was ripe for parody. This was not a small crowd, given to locker-room antics. More than 500 people saw it, including German guests.

—For Rebecca Sinclair, the general’s wife, who was there: She was “clearly shocked, angered and dismayed,” according to Bigelow (the accuser did not attend).

—For Sinclair himself: Attorney Richard Scheff said, in his client’s defense, that he had nothing to do with the skit:

(I’m) disappointed with them that they would try to make something out of nothing…a skit he had nothing to do with, a skit that afterwards he made sure the main accuser was talked to make sure she was okay. And frankly, a skit that involved other people as well where supposedly she was doing the same to other people. So what is the meaning of it? It means nothing.

Maybe it meant nothing to his client, a disgraced officer trying to weasel out of jail time, or to his civilian attorney.

But to the Army, it means everything.

Any soldier fresh out of basic training knows the meaning of “command climate.”

“Command climate” is the air that a military unit breathes. It is its bedrock culture, supposedly forged by leaders and nurtured by everyone in the outfit. Sinclair, by sitting there and watching the skit, accepted it. He didn’t stand up and walk out. Perhaps he didn’t want to embarrass his wife. Maybe he didn’t want to draw any more attention to his earlier actions and attitudes that let fellow soldiers think he’d get a kick out of it.

Even if he didn’t get a kick out of it, the soldiers performing it thought he would.

That’s the definition of a poor command climate. And until there’s more climate change in the Army, sexual assaults and harassment will continue.

TIME Military Sexual Assault

Sen. Claire McCaskill: An Evidence-Based Approach to Military Justice Reform

From left: Senator Claire McCaskill and Senator Kelly Ayotte at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2014, following a Senate vote on military sexual assaults .
Senator Claire McCaskill and Senator Kelly Ayotte at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2014, following a Senate vote on military sexual assaults. Charles Dharapak—AP

Game-changing reforms to combat sexual assault in the military have been overshadowed by a single policy disagreement

Unanimous agreement in the U.S. Senate is pretty rare — but even rarer than the 97-0 vote this week is the historic nature of the policy on which we were voting.

The Senate’s unanimous support of a bill I wrote with Senators Kelly Ayotte and Deb Fischer — to continue an overhaul of how the military justice system handles sexual assault — represented a further strengthening of that system, such that it is now one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world.

“U.S. military” and “victim-friendly” wouldn’t have fit in the same sentence one year ago. We’re all too familiar with the embarrassing, headline-grabbing failures of the pre-reform military system. But in recent months, we’ve achieved an overhaul that is nothing short of historic.

What does change look like?

Commanders have been stripped of the ability to overturn convictions, and will be held accountable under rigorous new standards. Every victim who reports a sexual assault will get their own independent lawyer to protect their rights and fight for their interests — a reform that has no parallel in the civilian justice system. Civilian review is now required if a commander decides against a prosecution in a sexual assault case when a prosecutor wants to go to trial. Dishonorable discharge is now a required minimum sentence for anyone convicted of a sexual assault. It is now a crime for any servicemember to retaliate against a victim who reports a sexual assault. The pre-trial “Article 32” process, which came under scrutiny following a recent case at the Naval Academy, has been reformed to better protect victims. And the statute of limitations in these cases has now been eliminated, a particularly important development in a sustained battle against sexual assaults.

These historic reforms have been signed into law and are being implemented. But we’re going even further.

The Senate 97-0 vote this week gave resounding approval to a half-dozen additional reforms, further strengthening the system to protect and empower victims and boost prosecutions of predators. These included banning the so-called “good soldier” defense for servicemembers accused of assault, allowing victims to have formal input in whether their case is tried in military or civilian court, and extending protections to the Military Service Academies. I’m confident we’ll see these additional reforms signed into law this year.

Unfortunately, these game-changing reforms — broadly supported by both Democrats and Republicans, men and women alike — have been overshadowed by the media coverage of a single policy disagreement over a controversial alternative. That alternative would have stripped military commanders of their ability to launch courts-martial.

As a former sex crimes prosecutor who’s personally held the hands of victims and fought to put rapists behind bars, I’ve judged each policy idea with one yardstick: Will it lead to better protections for victims and more prosecutions of predators? By that measure, I believe that alternative proposal would have fallen short, and that it in fact would have backfired, resulting in higher rates of retaliation against victims and fewer prosecutions of predators.

An ongoing case against a Brigadier General that’s gaining increasing media attention illustrates that risk. The court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair is complicated, but there’s one seldom-reported, overarching fact: The victim in this case is only getting her day in court because commanders went forward with a court-martial, overruling a prosecutor who wanted to let the perpetrator plead guilty to less serious crimes. The prosecutor in the case wanted the sexual assault charges dropped as a tactical matter — meaning that if commanders indeed lost their ability to launch courts-martial, the General would be off the hook for those charges, even though both the prosecutor and the command believe the crime likely occurred.

This case adds to at least 93 cases in just the past few years in which prosecutors declined to pursue charges, but in which commanders launched a court-martial. That’s 93 victims who would never have had their day in court if commanders lost the ability to bring cases forward. And we’ve found almost no cases in which a commander tried to overrule a prosecutor who wanted to move to trial.

Additionally, we know that this alternative proposal would not lead to the increase in reporting of these crimes that we’re seeking, as more victims come out of the shadows. We know this because of the experience of our allies who’ve adopted similar systems and seen no such increase in reporting.

Reform to the military justice system must be evidence-based and grounded in data. We must thoughtfully build the strongest reforms to protect and empower victims, crack down on commanders’ ability to abuse their authority and retain commanders’ ability to do it right.

In short, the policy matters.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is a former courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes, and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

TIME Military

The ‘Good Soldier’ Defense Is Mortally Wounded

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Getty Images

Legislation passed by the Senate on Monday puts an end to a defense commonly used in military sexual assault cases

The military tradition of citing a “good soldier” defense—meaning a sergeant could cite his or her fine military record as a defense if charged with sexual assault—is now set to become history. That’s one of the key changes approved by the Senate on Monday, in a wide-ranging bill to combat sexual assault in the ranks. It’s expected to also pass the House.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-Mo.) championed the legislation, and said the “good soldier” defense is “the ridiculous notion that how well one flies a plane should have anything to do with whether they committed a crime” (the defense will still be allowed in cases where the accused’s record is directly relevant to the charges).

The ability to present evidence that the accused is a good soldier has long been a valuable tool for military-defense lawyers at courts-martial and other legal proceedings. The U.S. military justice system, by and large, has gone along. “Military courts are staunch supporters of such evidence as a relevant character trait to nearly every offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” wrote Army Major Rebecca Kliem on the Army’s staff judge advocate school’s blog, where she is an associate professor of criminal law.

“Given this expansiveness, imagination is the only limit of what demonstrates ‘good military character'; any desirable trait in a service member counts,” Army lawyer and Major Franklin Rosenblatt argued in the Army Lawyer journal in 2010. “In application, character witnesses are commonly called to testify about their willingness to deploy with an accused. Other allowable ‘good military character’ testimony includes that an accused is ‘dedicated to being a good drill instructor,’ lawful, easygoing, dependable, and well liked. With so many traits to choose from that are permissible and admissible, nearly anyone can qualify as a ‘good Soldier.'”

Almost 20 years ago, an Army lawyer warned that the good-soldier defense could let the defendant’s attorneys “smother the fact-finder with good soldier evidence regardless of the charges.” And it tended to favor a certain kind of soldier, he noted: “The more senior the accused, the more likely the defense can craft some version of the good soldier defense.”

Four years later, the Army’s top enlisted soldier, Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney, employed the good-soldier defense after he had been charged with sexually harassing women who worked with him. “McKinney’s adroit use of his past service as a ‘good soldier; was widely credited for his acquittal on all charges of sexual misconduct, in spite of damning testimony from six servicewomen about his alleged harassment,” Elizabeth Hillman, now the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, wrote in 1999. “The good soldier defense advances the perception that one of the privileges of high rank and long service is immunity from conviction at court-martial,” said Hillman, now a professor of law and dean at the Hastings College of Law at the University of California.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was an ally of McCaskill’s in pushing for changes in how the military handles sexual assaults. “Military culture has been slow to grasp the painful truth,” the chairman of the armed services committee said, “that even a successful professional can also be a sexual predator.”

TIME Military

Army Judge Halts Sexual Assault Case, Citing Political Influence

Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the courthouse with one of his attorneys at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., on March 4, 2014.
Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the courthouse with one of his attorneys at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., on March 4, 2014. Ellen Ozier—Reuters

The prosecution of one of the highest-ranking officers ever charged with the crime hits the brakes as a judge looks into political influences on the trial. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair pleaded guilty last week to charges including possession of pornography and adultery

A U.S. Army judge has hit the brakes on the prosecution of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair on sexual assault charges, saying improper political considerations may have prevented the accused from being allowed to offer a plea deal.

The judge, Col. James L. Pohl, ruled Monday that “unlawful command influence” may have inspired the General Joseph Anderson, the overseeing authority in the case, to reject an offer from Sinclair to plea to lesser charges. In particular, Pohl expressed concern about a letter sent by an attorney for Sinclair’s chief accuser to Gen. Anderson, which addressed the potential political fallout of a failure to fully prosecute, the New York Times reports. Sinclair’s case has garnered tremendous attention, particularly in recent months as Congress has wrangled with legislation to address sexual assault in the military.

The defense is now looking to renegotiate a plea deal while the trial is delayed, the Associated Press reports.

Charges against Sinclair have not been dropped and the general has until Tuesday morning to offer a new plea deal. Last week, Sinclair pleaded guilty to lesser charges, including possession of pornography and adultery, a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. The more serious charges against him—including forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual contact, indecent acts—could send Sinclair to prison for life.

[NYT]

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