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.