Nation & World Briefs 03-07-14 Following Senate debate, no change in handling military sexual assaults allegations

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WASHINGTON -- Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.

The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Her bill would have given the decision to take serious crimes to courts-martial to seasoned military trial lawyers, independent of the chain of command.

The debate and vote were the culmination of a nearly yearlong campaign to curb sexual assault in the ranks, led by female senators who have questioned whether the military's mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.

Thursday's rejection is unlikely to be the final word. Defeated but unyielding, Gillibrand and her allies vowed to seize the next opportunity to force another vote, probably in the spring when the Senate starts work on a sweeping defense policy bill for the 2015 fiscal year.

"Many people said to me, 'Kirsten, I'm going to watch this, and if it doesn't get better in the next six months, I'm with you next time,'" she said at a news conference.

General faces up to 15 years: In his immaculate blue dress uniform, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair stood ramrod straight before a judge Thursday and pleaded guilty to three charges that could send him to prison for up to 15 years. It was a remarkable admission sure to end the military career of a man once regarded as a rising star among the U.S. Army's small cadre of trusted battle commanders. Sinclair, 51, still faces five other charges stemming from the claims of a female captain.

Gets first Illinois permit: Mary Shepard, a southern Illinois retiree whose legal fight helped bring about an end to the state's last-in-the-nation ban on concealed carry, has become among the state's first to get her permit to have a handgun in public. Shepard, 74, considered the mail she received Tuesday from Illinois State Police a reward -- partly for slogging through ice and snow to her mailbox at the end of a long, rural driveway, and partly because of her legal push that followed a 2009 church attack that left her severely beaten while unarmed.

Identities of 21 sought: The remains of 21 sailors killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor and buried as unknowns should be identified and returned to their families, a group of U.S. senators said Thursday. The sailors were aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma when it was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, ripped open by as many as nine torpedoes. The ship quickly rolled and came to rest just 20 minutes after being hit. Nearly 430 men died. The remains of 27 sailors were classified as unknown and buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as The Punchbowl, in Honolulu. The effort is led by Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Dalai Lama gives the opening prayer: The Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, delivered the opening invocation in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, praying "to Buddha and all" and suggesting that purity of thought will guide humanity's actions. In his saffron robe, the Dalai Lama climbed the few steps to the Senate dais and delivered the three-line prayer, first in the Tibetan language, then in English. He chuckled over his English pronunciation.

Rubio, Christie make pitches: Potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates regaled conservative activists with a preview of the next presidential campaign Thursday, sticking to long-held principles while largely avoiding incendiary social issues. They heeded the message of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: "We don't get to govern if we don't win. Let us come out here resolved not only to stand for our principles but resolved to win elections again." Each of the hopefuls delivered 10- to 15-minute messages to nearly 2,000 people gathered for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in the Washington suburb of Oxin Hill, Md., and no clear front-runner was apparent.

Cummings accepts apology: Rep. Elijah Cummings said Thursday night that California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa called him and apologized for refusing to let Cummings speak during an IRS hearing. The Maryland Democrat said he accepted the apology. Issa abruptly adjourned a hearing of the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. He instructed committee staff to turn off the microphone of the committee's top Democrat, Cummings. The hearing was on the improper targeting of tea party groups by the Internal Revenue Service. Cummings was trying to say that Republicans have overblown the controversy.

EU freezes assets: The European Union has frozen the assets of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, two of his sons and more than a dozen advisers who it says are responsible for stealing state funds. Announcement of the blacklist Thursday came as leaders of the EU's 28 member countries gathered for an emergency summit in Brussels to try to forge a tough common response to Russia's incursion into Crimea. Most of the 18 individuals affected by the asset freeze are members of Yanukovich's inner circle who were involved in the bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters in Kiev. The blacklist includes the former head of the security service, prosecutor general, justice minister and officials with the department of internal affairs.

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