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Sen. Nelson highlights sex abuse in war zones

Sen. Bill Nelson, left, and John Spiegel, the attorney for a Tampa woman, talk on Monday in Tampa about her and others who allege they were raped while working for contractors in Iraq.

KEN HELLE | Times

Sen. Bill Nelson, left, and John Spiegel, the attorney for a Tampa woman, talk on Monday in Tampa about her and others who allege they were raped while working for contractors in Iraq.

TAMPA — Disappointed by the lack of prosecutions in more than two dozen alleged rapes of female contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sen. Bill Nelson on Monday said he was pushing for tougher rules to protect overseas personnel.

Nelson said he hopes to pass the rules by the end of the year. They would require contractors to report offenses and provide protection for victims and witnesses reporting criminal behavior.

"The least we can do is to try to protect these women," Nelson said from the steps of the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse in Tampa.

Standing next to him was John Spiegel, a Miami attorney representing a Tampa woman who claims she was raped by a drunken co-worker in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2005 while working for Service Employees International Inc., a subsidiary of KBR Inc.

The woman, who didn't attend the news conference and wishes to remain anonymous, filed a civil suit against KBR claiming the company failed to protect her.

While that case is now in arbitration, Spiegel said his client has not been given access to documents or materials related to the case, including forensic evidence that a medical doctor collected within 24 hours of the attack.

"It's our belief that the U.S. Attorney's Office has it," Spiegel said. "We sure don't have it."

The man accused of attacking the woman lives in Texas and apparently has yet to be charged, Spiegel said.

Nelson said it was this woman's case that set him on an investigative trail into how the sexual abuse of overseas female contractors is ignored by a "buddy buddy system" of large contracting companies who "sweep the complaints under the rug."

In a prepared statement, KBR said it doesn't condone or tolerate sexual harassment, that each employee must adhere to the company's code of business conduct, and that each reported allegation of sexual harassment is "seriously and thoroughly investigated."

But Nelson, a Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is convinced this is not the case.

The subcommittee that he chairs held a hearing earlier this month, during which two women claimed they were sexually assaulted. One said she was raped by two men: a co-worker and a soldier at a U.S. base in Iraq. She said supervisors discouraged her from filing a complaint.

In all, Nelson says, 27 female contractors have filed sexual assault complaints and none of the cases has been prosecuted by the U.S. government.

Getting a firm number of just how many cases there are is a challenge. A Justice Department spokeswoman referred that question to the Defense Department. A Defense Department spokeswoman, however, referred questions back to the Justice Department.

"It's not a DOD matter," Cheryl Irwin said. "We do not track contractor issues."

The Justice Department also declined to have Sigal Mandelker, its deputy assistant general for the department's criminal division, answer questions. It instead provided the testimony she gave Nelson on April 9.

"Investigating and prosecuting serious crimes in a war zone is a very difficult and costly legal proposition," Mandelker said. "These logistical challenges help explain why investigations and prosecutions … may take significant time to complete."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Sen. Nelson highlights sex abuse in war zones 04/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 8:41am]
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