When rape is just another workplace dispute

The appalling case of Dawn Leamon, stuck in bureaucratic limbo after claiming sexual assault in Iraq.

Topics: Broadsheet, Iraq, Middle East, Love and Sex,

Rape is nasty, brutish and inexcusable, but let’s face it: Rape happens in every imaginable setting — dark urban alleys, jungles in the Congo, respectable marriages. So when rape happens in a war zone by members of our Armed Services or their contracted mercenaries, we should be horrified but not terribly shell-shocked.

Still, the rape stories coming out of the American workforce in Iraq blindside me every time. Last week the Nation broke another horror story about a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted by a U.S. soldier and one of her fellow KBR employees in Iraq. Like the story of Jamie Leigh Jones, the former KBR employee who claims she was held in a shipping container after coming forward about being gang-raped by her co-workers in Iraq, the story of Dawn Leamon, contracted as a paramedic by KBR’s foreign subsidiary Service Employees International Inc., is a stomach turner.

After sharing a verboten drink with other KBR employees, she says she blacked out, then woke up covered with feces and blood next to an unconscious U.S. soldier. Of the events that transpired the night before, she recalls very little: screaming when the soldier was sodomizing her, a KBR employee holding her hand, but instead of helping her, forcing his penis in her mouth. Since she only had one drink and she gave it to someone to hold while she stepped outside, she assumes her drink was drugged.

Ugly, but not altogether unusual. But what happened since her assault seems to be a special kind of mistreatment that U.S. military contractors are perfecting to an art: bureaucratic rape.

She claims she was told to keep quiet about the incident and she did, continuing to work on the base. Eventually, she spoke to the employee assistant at a larger base and filed a formal report — and after a series of interviews with KBR, she says she was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement. A military doctor she visited and confided in also reported the incident to the CID, military crime investigators. Since one of the assailants was a member of the military, it could become a military case, but the CID won’t be able to prosecute any KBR employees involved. When Leamon engaged an American lawyer via e-mail, she claims her computer was confiscated as “evidence,” effectively cutting her off from the outside world.

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Since reporting the case, Leamon (again like Jones) has found herself in a legal limbo. The crimes happened off American soil so American criminal courts can claim no jurisdiction. The Iraqi court system — according to Paul Bremer’s Order 17 — is not allowed to prosecute cases against American military contractors.

As with Jones, KBR has pressed for the matter to be resolved through “arbitration.” Currently, Jones is waiting for a judge to decide whether her lawsuit against Halliburton (the parent company of KBR at the time of her assault) can go to court or must go into arbitration. Get that? A civil suit is the best she can hope for! Jones told “Democracy Now” that she’s started a foundation for other women who have been sexually assaulted by contractors in Iraq, and she claims 40 women have approached her with their stories.

On Wednesday, both women testified before the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, and the Justice Department, according to an AP story, assured the senators the agency took allegations of sexual assault “very seriously.” This amounts to a modicum of progress. When the Senate held similar hearings in December, the Justice Department didn’t even bother sending a representative. But still.

The idea that there’s a place somewhat under American control where a rape or a murder is unprosecutable (and can only be resolved as a workplace dispute) beggars the mind. This legal limbo theory lets the Justice Department quite off the hook. According to Sen. Bill Nelson, who chaired the hearings, there are at least three laws that give the Justice Department the authority to take on these cases. What’s more, the agency claims to be investigating Leamon’s case along with several others. The question is whether they’ll do their job.

Take a stab at how many violent criminal cases against a U.S. contractor the Justice Department has successfully prosecuted since the war began? If you guessed more than zero, you guessed too many.

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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