Kimberley Motley: From beauty pageants to Afghanistan' s only foreign lawyer

Geoffrey Macnab meets the American whose unique career change is the subject of a new film

When the US lawyer Kimberley Motley first arrived to work in Afghanistan in 2008, she admitted she had come for the money, “like half the people here”. She had student loans to pay off and a family back in America to support.

Eight years later, the former Wisconsin beauty queen is the only foreigner with a licence to litigate in Afghanistan’s courts, and her work is the subject of a new documentary, Motley’s Law.

Her clients range from imprisoned Afghan women in Kabul’s Badam Bagh prison to foreign security contractors, as well as kidnap and rape victims. She also offers free legal advice to children in juvenile detention centres.

In one of her most high profile and contentious recent cases, she represented the family of Farkhunda Malikzada, the 27-year-old woman beaten to death by a mob after being falsely accused of burning a Koran. Speaking to The Independent, Ms Motley expressed her frustration at the way that the case against Ms Malikzada’s attackers eventually unfolded. In the original trial, there were 19 criminal convictions. Eight were for police officers failing to render assistance. Four men were sentenced to death.

“It puts people on notice that if you see a person getting hurt, you have not only a moral obligation to step in, but also a legal obligation,” Ms Motley says of the conviction of the police officers. “I don’t think the verdicts were perfect but with mob violence-like cases, it is very difficult to get everybody.”

But the euphoria at the decisions of the “first” court soon evaporated. Ms Motley and the family came under “heavy pressure” to step aside. “The reason I got off that case was that the family was heavily pressured by the government to get off that case. Actually, I was pressured specifically by people at the Presidential Palace to the point where I was forced to go to the Palace late at night to talk about why I was representing the family.”

In subsequent rulings, the sentences were watered down. Ms Motley suggests that various requirements of Afghan law were ignored as the original decisions were overturned. “I was satisfied by the first court. The second and third courts have been a real travesty. I think it definitely is step backwards for Afghanistan legally and morally,” the lawyer states. “It is just another example that women’s lives in Afghanistan just do not mean as much as men’s do.”

Motley’s Law, directed by Nicole Nielsen Horany reveals that Ms Motley is both extremely respectful of Islamic law – and fiery and stubborn in the extreme when it comes to defending her clients. She is an inspirational figure, “a badass lawyer fighting for justice” as she has often been styled.

After first arriving in Kabul, Ms Motley immersed herself in the workings of the Afghan legal system.  She describes herself as “a legal archaeologist,” always trying to “dig up laws” that might help her clients. In particular, she points to chapters and verses in Islamic texts that protect women. For example, she points to a passage which says that, in order to accuse someone of adultery, you must have four eye-witnesses. “There are never four eye-witnesses in court but I can use that chapter and verse in court to litigate successfully for my client.” She also cites a line, “a woman is never to be inherited”, which she interprets as “never be forced to marry”.

In the hope of hot water, security and electricity, Ms Motley had gone to the Serena Hotel in Kabul just before it was attacked by Taliban gunmen in March 2014. She hid in a hotel room during the shooting. Witnessing the bloodshed was a reminder of just how dangerous the city could be. 

In spite of having lived with the constant threat of violence throughout her time in Afghanistan, Ms Motley was shaken by the incident. In 2014, she relocated her law firm to a new, undisclosed location in Afghanistan. She has also begun to take on more cases outside the country. Nonetheless, her commitment to the country remains. Ms Motley grew up in Milwaukee, the daughter of an African-American father (who served in the US Navy) and a Korean mother. As she invariably jokes when asked if she is intimidated by Afghanistan, “I always tell people that I grew up in a tough neighbourhood.” 

The documentary, which opens with her coming back to her Kabul apartment to discover that somebody has lobbed a grenade into her building, makes it very clear Ms Motley is not the type to be cowed by the threat of the violence. “I can’t work like that, I work better angry than fearful,” Ms Motley declares. “Fearful – it just cripples you. If I am too afraid in Afghanistan, I don’t need to be there. I am not going to be effective. It just is what it is.”   

Motley’s Law is released on 1 April

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