U.S. senators optimistic about changing how the military handles assault

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WASHINGTON, April 29 (Reuters) - U.S. senators said on Thursday they expect to pass a law mandating a major shift in how the military handles cases of sexual assault, after years of thwarted efforts to take prosecution of such cases out of the hands of commanders.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat who has championed the policy shift for much of the past decade, led a group of Democrats and Republicans introducing legislation to make prosecution of such crimes the responsibility of independent military prosecutors.

"This legislation is not partisan and it is not political," said Gillibrand. She first introduced the "Military Justice Improvement Act" in 2013.

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The senators noted that the Department of Defense said almost 21,000 service members were sexually assaulted in 2018, despite efforts to end sexual harassment and assault among the troops.

Gillibrand introduced the bill with a group of Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, who said they expected it would become law. "I'm going to predict that by the end of this Congress, we're going to pass this bill, and it's about damn time," Republican Senator Ted Cruz said.

Republican Senator Joni Ernst, a military veteran, became a co-sponsor recently, saying Congress had waited long enough for the Pentagon to change on its own. She said the bill would send an essential message that sexual assault would be punished, even if a local commander is inclined to overlook the issue.

"Once that sexual assault has occurred, you can't go back. You can't change what has happened and you will relive that moment of your life over and over again," said Ernst, an assault survivor.

An independent commission on sexual assault set up by the Pentagon recommended last week that the military take the decision to prosecute cases out of the chain of command. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has not made a decision, as he consults leaders of the military branches. read more

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Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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