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Lawsuit: Pentagon denied rape victims their constitutional rights

Nineteen veterans and active-duty service members from the Army and Air Force allege in a new lawsuit filed Friday that they were sexually assaulted while in the military and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other leaders denied them their constitutional rights of due process after reporting the crimes.

The suit seeks monetary damages, though no precise figure was named. It is the fifth lawsuit of its kind filed by Susan Burke, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney.

The 15 women and four men named in the suit were all retaliated against after reporting rapes and were denied the right to have their cases heard by an impartial party, Burke said. In the military, senior commanders are in charge of determining whether reported sexual assaults will be referred to military courts.

Related: Victims of sexual assault in military say brass often ignore pleas for justice

“Anyone who has looked closely at these types of cases knows that we have a disgraceful system,” Burke told NBC News. “It is controlled by the chain of command. These rape survivors were all denied entry into a court system, and they were retaliated against.”

While each case has different facts on the time and place of the assault, they demonstrate a pattern of a systematic failure of leadership and oversight, Burke said, explaining why Panetta is named in the suit.

The lawsuit filed Friday comes on the heels of a rare case of an Army general being charged with sexual assault and a scandal at Lackland Air Base in San Antonio, Texas, in which at least in which at least a dozen military instructors are accused of sexually assaulting young female recruits.

Related: Army general accused of sex misconduct

Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, who has served 27 years, including tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, on Wednesday was charged with forced sex on a subordinate and other offenses. He was relieved of his duty in May and recalled to Fort Bragg, N.C., where the charges were referred to military investigators.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., joined a news conference in San Francisco announcing the new lawsuit.

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In November 2011, Speier introduced legislation in Congress to reform the military justice system and the way it handles cases of rape and sexual assault. H.R. 3435, the Sexual Assault Training and Oversight Prevention Act (STOP Act), would create an impartial office made up of civilian and military experts within the military to review cases of rape and sexual assault. The bill has 133 bipartisan cosponsors.

For his part, Panetta has moved to change how sexual assaults are reported and dealt with inside the armed forces. In April, he issued new policies requiring that more senior commanders handle sexual assault complaints. And on Tuesday he ordered all military branches to improve the quality of sexual assault prevention and training.

However, Burke, and activists claim those moves fall short.

"This has been going on for years," Burke said. "Clearly, keeping these cases inside the military system isn't working."   

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