One of the world's leading foreign lawyers, Kimberley Motley, had never left the US before she went on a study program to Afghanistan. There, she reinvented herself, her career and changed the lives of hundreds in the country's prisons. Hers is a truly extraordinary story.
By
Sharon Verghis

17 Feb 2017 - 12:42 PM  UPDATED 21 Feb 2017 - 9:57 AM

In her unlikely role as Afghanistan’s only foreign litigator, Kimberley Motley has faced more than her fair share of danger. The American lawyer – a former beauty queen of African-American and Korean ancestry, TEDx speaker and one of the world’s leading foreign litigators – has fought for child brides and domestic violence victims among others.

Sometimes, she’s found herself in the firing line as well - the target of anonymous rape and death threats.

In Kabul, “I have security measures in place. It’s just part of the job, I don’t like to dwell on it,” she tells SBS on the phone from the US. “My view is that if I felt it was such a big issue, then maybe I shouldn’t be here. I have that option after all – I can get on a plane, I have a US passport.”

Sometimes, she’s found herself in the firing line as well - the target of anonymous rape and death threats.

Motley’s extraordinary story ‘Superwoman of Kabul’, which screens on SBS on Sunday 19 February at 11.45pm (and available on SBS On Demand thereafter), is a documentary that’s been four years in the making. So how did a woman who had never even travelled out of the United States prior to her Afghanistan adventure end up as the war-ravaged country’s only foreign litigator?

For Motley, it all started in 2008 when she was sent to Kabul under a US State Department legal education program to train attorneys there.

It was a massive culture shock on all levels, akin to landing on the moon, she says. She cites unpaved roads, chaotic traffic, lack of street lights, children playing with kites in the face of oncoming cars; there was much to find fascinating too, from the rich Afghani culture to the cosmopolitan network of foreigners from all over the world.

Somehow, she says, the country was able to function. “I didn’t understand how but somehow it did… it was a beautiful mess in lots of way. A Rubik’s cube.”

Women, not surprisingly, were the most vulnerable to this lack of basic legal protections, crippled by “zero voice”.

Legally, it was a shock as well. The normal rules of evidence and discovery, the right of the accused to be present at trial, were usually absent: “so often, it seemed like unwritten procedures trumped written law. Judges were convicting people without them even being present. A defense attorney was a relatively new concept, which is why I was originally sent there to help build up the advocacy system in Afghanistan.”

Women, not surprisingly, were the most vulnerable to this lack of basic legal protections, crippled by “zero voice”. Many male lawyers refused to work with female clients because some had been charged with adultery for being in contact with a non-related female.

Motley says she was fundamentally changed by her first case, successfully fighting for a reduction in a 16-year prison sentence for an African female drug mule, languishing in jail with her toddler daughter.

She started helping other foreign women in jail, and in 2009, decided to strike out on her own. Based in Kabul for nine months of the year, she slowly built her now thriving practice.

One of her more prominent cases includes successfully representing a woman known only as Gulnaz, who had been jailed for adultery after she was raped by her cousin’s husband. That case led President Hamid Karzai to issue his first presidential pardon for a so-called “moral crime”.

Motley was able to secure prosecutions for all involved, including the victim’s brother for “basically selling her…I think that was the first successful prosecution for that, so that was a huge victory”.

Another famous case involved a child bride called Sahar Gul, horribly abused by her husband and his family. Motley was able to secure prosecutions for all involved, including the victim’s brother for “basically selling her…I think that was the first successful prosecution for that, so that was a huge victory”.

Motley also built up a series of Australian clients, including successfully tracking down two Australian children who had been illegally taken from their mother to Afghanistan for two years. She travelled back with them to Australia “so that was very satisfying. But it can also be terrifying because what if you don’t get that resolution? It’s such a gamble”.

Motley has gone on to also build a thriving international practice, which receives no government funding. “I consider this my way to be a global investor in human rights and I try to encourage others to do the same because I don’t think it should be all up to the NGOS (non-government organisations).”

In some ways, Motley’s passion for speaking out was seeded in her childhood, growing up in the US as mixed-race child in a poor and crime-ridden Milwaukee town. An “extremely shy” child, she had to speak on behalf of her mother, a Korean immigrant with no English – she suspects this is where she developed her advocacy skills.

"And I feel that a part of what I do is still being that DJ, I feel like laws are like songs and when I go to court, I am creating a playlist of what judges want to hear.. I treat litigation as my art and craft…it’s theatre to a certain extent." 

She was aware of injustice around her - “people illegally being arrested and harassed, mostly black men, poor people being taken advantage of” – but there was no burning desire to study law as a result. In college she wanted to be a DJ, she says.

"And I feel that a part of what I do is still being that DJ, I feel like laws are like songs and when I go to court, I am creating a playlist of what judges want to hear.. I treat litigation as my art and craft…it’s theatre to a certain extent."

She downplays any sentimental ideas of pure altruism – “to be clear, my business is for profit – I’m not Mother Teresa,” she says, chuckling. Around 70 per cent of her workload comprises of paying clients and the rest are “human rights, pro-bono cases. And I have to say, they are the most satisfying because they are the clients most at risk.”

She believes strongly in the need for lawyers worldwide to fight for the rule of law to be preserved at a time of global turmoil, and applauds what she sees as a reinvigoration in activism across the legal system in the US following the Trump administration’s contentious so-called “Muslim ban” executive order.

“The laws are there, they are words on pieces of paper, but it is up to us to make them come to life and have meaning, particularly in these critical times.”


Watch Kimberley Motley's incredible story in the documentary, ‘Superwoman of Kabul’, on SBS On Demand below. 

What makes a photographer pack up his life and relocate to Afghanistan?
Deadly but beautiful: award-winning Australian photo-journalist Andrew Quilty shares his take on Afghanistan – the land that he now calls home.
28 days in Afghanistan
What's it like living in war-ravaged Afghanistan? For the next 28 days, award-winning photo-journalist Andrew Quilty shares a first-hand glimpse into his life.
First day: The photojournalist who documented his boat journey from Afghanistan
Award-winning photojournalist Barat Ali Batoor's life and work collided when he documented his own journey to Australia from Afghanistan by boat.
Afghanistan’s toughest ultramarathon women
SBS Dateline: Life has already been an endurance test for Nelofar and Zainab – navigating their way through the war-torn and male-dominated world of Afghanistan – but now they’re taking on one of the world’s toughest endurance races, the Gobi Desert Ultramarathon.