Al Jazeera

Beauty and the East: The lone foreign lawyer in Afghanistan

Why one American woman chose to leave her family behind in order to bring 'justness' to Kabul courts

For a supposed do-gooder in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, Kimberley Motley is surprisingly blunt about her original motivations as a legal champion in Afghanistan.

“I came here for the money, just like half the people here. I had no interest in Afghanistan. I didn’t even know where Afghanistan was on a map,” Motley said in the new Al Jazeera America documentary, Motley’s Law, about her work as the first — and still only — foreign lawyer licensed to litigate in Afghanistan’s courts, which include criminal, family and commercial courts.

“I am not ashamed to admit that,” she added.

Kimberley Motley.
Helle Moos

The half-Korean, half-African-American former Mrs. Wisconsin grew up in a “hard” Milwaukee neighborhood filled with poverty and crime. Hers was also the only mixed-race family in an ethnically tense area. Motley’s decision to work in Afghanistan was motivated in part by wanting a better life for her own three children.

Thus began an independent career in Afghanistan in 2008, following work for a U.S. State Department-funded 12-month project in the country acting as a justice advisor, training Afghan defense attorneys and legal aid providers.

Afghanistan's first democratic constitution was signed into law on January 26, 2004. At that time, a formal Islamic legal system was enacted and the Supreme Court was given the powers of judicial review. Even the country’s loya jirgas — tribal mediations — are obliged to adhere to the law.

Motley has used the country’s own rules to bring “justness.” Motley describes justness as “using laws for their intended purposes.” Justness is “also the legal reality that I fight on behalf of my clients within the bounds of the law.” Afghan laws meant to protect people are under-enforced, while the reverse is true for laws meant for punishment, she found. This is not a problem unique to the country.

“Laws are grossly underutilized in every place I go, from Afghanistan to the U.S.” Motley told Al Jazeera. “This is a global problem, and people are simply not being afforded the legal protections that they are entitled to.”

The outsider and unlikely star in a male-dominated society cites a higher than 90 percent success rate, crediting her willingness and ability to work with the system. Motley does not speak the Afghan languages of Pashto and Dari, but she’s armed with an iPad.

“It is much lighter to carry the iPad than hundreds of hard copies of the laws,” Motley said. On it she keeps the Holy Quran in Arabic and English and her “complete legal library of the various laws, religious books, research materials in all the countries I go to.”

Motley does not play the bribe-game either. While defending Anthony Malone, a former British soldier sentenced to jail for fraud, Motley was told by a judicial official that if her client paid, “we’ll write the attorney general and he’ll be released” — despite the fact that her client’s signature was forged on a confession document and there were no witnesses to the alleged crime.

To the bewilderment of the other men in the room, Motley instructs her translator to respond, “How much money must he pay to people who don’t exist?” She then schools them on the principles of the Quran and Sharia. Malone was later released from prison.

How much money must he pay to people who don't exist?

Kimberley Motley

Attorney in Afghanistan

Motley found that in general there are several things that impeded most Afghans in the justice system: They don’t know what the laws are, laws are ignored in favor of illegal customs and there are not enough people working to enforce the law.

“I find that the biggest problem is that people do not know the laws, and in large part it is because the laws are not readily accessible to the people,” she said.

Motley has represented businessmen and ambassadors as well. Her only lucrative cases mostly involve foreigners. "Human rights work does not pay the bills,” she said, but offers free legal advice to imprisoned women.

Initially, Motley shied away from human rights abuse cases for several reasons, including a “real concern” that her involvement could “make matters worse” for victims. She also worried that if she was “successful legally”, the “floodgates of clients coming for representation would open.”

But as Motley continued to work in the country, she met many people “stuck in a very confusing, archaic, and corrupt system of justice who did not have the legal representation they needed and deserved,” Motley said.

Due to this legal morass, some of her clients have suffered tremendous torture and cruelty in their young lives.

In one case, a father sold his young daughter, Naghma, to pay off a debt. When one of her brothers died and her mother fell ill, Naghma’s dad borrowed $2,500 — a debt he was then unable to pay back.

A local meeting of elders — called a jirga — decided the best way to settle the unpaid debt was to marry off six-year-old Naghma to the neighbor — who was in his 20s. Motley notes this is not only morally objectionable, but also illegal according to the country's own laws.

She presided over another jirga that covened, resulting in the nullification of the engagement and the return of the child — a novelty for a foreigner to have done so.

In another case, Gulnaz, an 18-year-old woman, was raped by her cousin’s husband, then imprisoned for adultery. Motley was able to help Gulnaz, who became pregnant as a result of the attack, receive a presidential pardon from Hamid Karzai for her and her daughter. It was the “first pardon issued for a moral crimes case in Afghanistan ... a monumental victory,” said Motley.

However, Gulnaz ended up marrying her rapist because she was pressured from her community — including the women’s shelter where she was staying and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

“Many Afghan close-minded conservative women pushed and pressured her to marry,” said Motley.

Another client, Sahar — just 11 years old — was tortured in her in-laws' house; she was imprisoned in their basement for refusing to become a prostitute. By the time the child bride was rescued, she had been starved, burned by cigarettes and had her fingernails ripped out. The Supreme Court sentenced some of Sahar’s abusers to five years in prison.

This case of Motley’s was the first in which such a victim was being-represented by an attorney. It was also novel, because Sahar was suing for civil compensatory damages — “both laws that had been on the books for years but no one had ever used,” according to Motley.

Hers is not a job without risk. Motley has been personally targeted — a grenade was thrown in her office and residence in Afghanistan. She has also been temporarily detained, accused of running a brothel and being a spy.

But Motley is not one to be cowed into backing down.

“Ridiculous accusations and failed attempts of intimidation,” she said.  

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