IDF to Give Legal Aid to Soldiers With Sex-offense Complaints

Until now, only the accused was represented for free by army, while accusers had to pay for lawyer.

FILE PHOTO: Female Israel Defense Forces' soldiers
Olivier Fitoussi

The Israel Defense Forces has set up a new department that will provide legal assistance to soldiers who are victims of sex offenses, Haaretz has learned.

The department is part of the army’s existing support center for victims of sexual assault, which is under the auspices of the chief of staff’s adviser on gender issues.

Over the last two years, the support center has received about 1,000 complaints of sexual assault and harassment per year. Roughly 60 percent of these cases took place in military settings.

In contrast, only about 125 complaints of sex crimes are filed with the Military Police each year.

The IDF hopes that by allowing complainants to obtain legal advice on the army’s tab, the new department will make more victims willing to complain to the Military Police and thereby result in more sexual offenders standing trial.

The army has been studying the lack of legal representation for complainants in sex crime cases for about a year. The issue came to public attention last summer when Lt. Col. Liran Hajbi was convicted of inappropriate sexual conduct toward a soldier serving under him, May Fattal. Fattal was represented by a private attorney, as is the former soldier who recently filed a rape complaint against Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris.

This fact has great significance, because not every private-sector attorney has expertise in military law, which is different from civilian law, said an officer who formerly served in the Military Advocate General’s Corps.

The new department has already started providing legal advice to the woman who complained against Buchris. A second soldier, whose name was given to the Military Police by the first complainant, also testified this week that Buchris sexually harassed her. Buchris has denied all the allegations against him.

Until now, while suspected sex offenders were entitled to free legal representation by the MAG Corps, their victims were entitled to no legal assistance whatsoever from the army, and had to hire their own attorneys. This created an absurd situation in which the victims had to pay but the offenders didn’t.

This issue was discussed by the Dorner Committee, which was set up in 2012 to examine the scope of the legal services provided by military defense attorneys. But the panel concluded that since the MAG Corps represents the defendants, it couldn’t represent the complainants as well, since this would create a potential conflict of interest. That is why the new legal service will be part of the support center rather than the MAG Corps.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Office said the new department will include several attorneys.

The support center was established in 2012 to assist soldiers who were victims of sex crimes, regardless of whether those crimes were committed inside or outside the army. It offers various types of assistance, including emotional support and psychological counseling, but until now, legal assistance wasn’t part of the package.

The Victims’ Rights Law, which took effect in the civilian world more than a decade ago, still doesn’t apply in the army. That law entitles crime victims to be briefed on the status of the investigation into their case and the status of the trial, if there is one. In the case of sex crime victims, it also entitles them to be notified before a suspected or convicted assailant is released. And in 2014, the law was amended to allow sex crime victims to choose the gender of the person investigating their cases.

The MAG Corps claims it upholds the spirit of this law even though it isn’t formally bound by it. An army source said this is due to “a moral worldview that sees the importance of defending crime victims, even if the law doesn’t explicitly apply to the IDF.”

But the fact that the army will now provide legal assistance to victims of sex crimes is expected to help those victims insist on receiving the same rights that the law grants civilians.