Kimberley Motley: The Secret Superhero of Kabul’s Courtrooms

There are many lawyers who fight admirable battles against discrimination in society, but there are few whose commitment to social justice has been tested as thoroughly as Kimberley Motley, the first foreign lawyer to practice in Afghanistan. She’s been arrested as a spy, targeted with death threats and even had to deal with grenades lobbed in her offices, and this fearless legislator’s work in Kabul leaves no doubt about her qualifications as a Secret Superhero. 

THE ACCIDENTAL BEAUTY QUEEN

Kimberley was born in 1975 and grew up in northern Milwaukee, into a poor mixed race family in a rough neighborhood that was largely divided along racial lines. Kimberley’s parents had met when her father was stationed with the military in Korea.  On their return to the US her father was seriously injured in a car accident at work, but was not awarded an  insurance payout, and consequently the Motleys were raised in grinding poverty. Kimberley recalls how every summer she and her siblings would be sent to work on nearby farms, “planting turnips, and picking green beans and strawberries” which would then be frozen by the family for the coming winter. 

Kimberley Motley: The Secret Superhero of Kabul’s Courtrooms

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There are many lawyers who fight admirable battles against discrimination in society, but there are few whose commitment to social justice has been tested as thoroughly as Kimberley Motley, the first foreign lawyer to practice in Afghanistan. She’s been arrested as a spy, targeted with death threats and even had to deal with grenades lobbed in her offices, and this fearless legislator’s work in Kabul leaves no doubt about her qualifications as a Secret Superhero. 

THE ACCIDENTAL BEAUTY QUEEN

Kimberley was born in 1975 and grew up in northern Milwaukee, into a poor mixed race family in a rough neighborhood that was largely divided along racial lines. Kimberley’s parents had met when her father was stationed with the military in Korea.  On their return to the US her father was seriously injured in a car accident at work, but was not awarded an  insurance payout, and consequently the Motleys were raised in grinding poverty. Kimberley recalls how every summer she and her siblings would be sent to work on nearby farms, “planting turnips, and picking green beans and strawberries” which would then be frozen by the family for the coming winter. 

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These experiences, coupled with the troubles of the people in her neighborhood, led her to develop a clear sense of social justice from an early age, and also a fascination with the law. As she later told interviewers, the subject was never far from view: “People in my neighborhood were often in and out of prison. Apart from mine, I don't remember anyone else having a two-parent household and there was a lot of drug-dealing." Fortunately Kimberley excelled at school, and although her parents wanted her to practice medicine, she was motivated by the injustices that surrounded her, including her father’s denied insurance,  and wanted to study law to tackle the problems that she saw around her. She also found time to demonstrate a more impulsive side to her character when she was dared by a friend to enter the Mrs Wisconsin beauty pageant in 2004; she won the title, but her course was set on the law and after graduating she worked as a public defender in Milwaukee courts for five years.

HOW IT’S DONE

Everything changed in 2008, when Kimberley accepted a position on a U.S. Government mission to travel to Kabul to train local lawyers. Kimberley had never left the U.S before, and this was her first trip abroad. Her first experiences of Afghanistan’s legal system were a huge eyeopener; a country where traditional tribal conventions tried to coexist with a democratic judiciary. Due process violations were the norm, and as Kimberley told reporters:"This is the only place that I've seen where procedure trumps law. If the unwritten procedure says this is the way we do things, then that's how it's done.” 

Giving a TED talk in 2014

Kimberley saw first hand how the system was failing both local defendants, and foreign nationals who had been detained and were now trapped in Afghan prisons without proper representation. She took the decision to stay behind in Kabul and set up her own private practice, and in the process became the first foreigner to litigate in Kabul’s courts, a precedent that was made all the more remarkable by her being an American woman. Her courtroom approach was unusual, but effective; assisted by an iPad on translation duties and a team of specially trained lawyers, Kimberley found that she could win cases within the system. One key aspect of that approach is her refusal to wear a headscarf or dress, telling reporters “I need to look like a man as much as possible. I find that men hear me more when I don’t wear a headscarf. I wore it at first, and when I took it off, I found men were more respectful.””   

UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS

Her immediate success led to a great deal of pushback, with threats, harassment and intimidation the norm. The most extreme example came when someone rolled a grenade into her offices; thankfully it did not explode. Motley responded to attempts to intimidate her with gallows humor, telling the Daily Beast in 2014: “I get threats of being raped. If I was a man, I’d get more death threats, I suppose. But I get those as well.” She was also frequently  harassed by the authorities, who temporarily detained her on several occasions, and accused her of being a foreign agent. Despite all this, she continued to represent her client, and scored a huge number of impressive victories. 

Perhaps the most noteworthy case involved Gulnaz, a young Afghan woman who was raped by her cousin’s husband. She only reported the assault to the police after realizing she was pregnant; she was arrested and charged with adultery, and handed a twelve year sentence. On hearing about the case, Kimberley organized a petition to lobby former president Hamid Karzai for a pardon, and also sought to raise an international outcry. Gulnaz was subsequently pardoned, the first ever example of an Afghan president intervening in a case involving what are known as zina - “moral crimes”.  

A NEW ECONOMY

Motley’s work often focuses on local women like Gulnaz, but she has worked to help many foreign nationals trapped in the system. One such was Bill Shaw, a British security contractor and former army officer who was arrested on trumped up bribery charges. He was assigned a lawyer who spoke no English, and sentenced to two years in Pul-e-Charkhi, one of Afghanistan’s toughest prisons. Kimberley was able to have his case thrown out on appeal due to insufficient evidence, and Shaw subsequently paid tribute to “to Kimberly and her dogged determination to succeed”  as the prime reason why he was freed. 

Sadly, since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 2021, Kimberley has been unable to work on behalf of its citizens, and while she continues to advocate for them on social media, their courts are now sadly beyond her reach. She has now become an internationally renowned figure in the world of human rights law, however, and her practice is now a global operation, taking on human rights cases around the planet. She’s also speaking out on the need for legal reform and better understanding of the law in democratic societies, and has talked publicly of the increasingly urgent need to foster a “global human rights economy” to better protect citizens in future. It’s an effort that this Secret Superhero, who has fought some of the hardest circumstances imaginable to defend the human rights of others, is thoroughly qualified to fight for.  

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