A LAWYER IN KABUL. Kimberley Motley quit her job as a public defender in Milwaukee in 2008 to join a U.S. government sponsored ‘capacity building’ program that helped train lawyers in war-torn Afghanistan. 32-years-old at the time, she was a former Mrs. Wisconsin and mother of three who had never travelled outside the United States. In her book Lawless, A Lawyer’s Unrelenting Fight for Justice in a War Zone she writes about her life and experiences.
How tough was the Milwaukee environment to grow up in?
Milwaukee is a unique city that has a lot of unfortunate problems. The number one most segregated city in the US, it incarcerates more black men than any other city in the US. My father was an air force man, my mother a Korean immigrant, and I grew up with humble beginnings in a very multi diverse environment. My neighbourhood was African-American, the private schooling I went to was mostly comprised of white students, and I was the only black Korean.
Why did you become a lawyer?
I wouldn’t say that I was on a crusade for justice. It just happened.
How is it to defend someone who is taken or mistaken as a criminal?
Everyone has the right to a legal defense in the US, including in Milwaukee. It’s even more important to represent people who are guilty. It comes down to the validity of rule of law. We all have the right to due process. If someone’s accused of a crime, there are constitutional protections that should be respected.
Why did you choose go to Afghanistan for a lawyer training program lasting a year?
It was completely financial. I wanted to make more money because I wanted to support my family.
What made you stay on in Afghanistan after the initial program?
It still was financial, but I was interested in seeing if I could represent people in the Afghan courts. I’m a litigator. I love fighting in court. The opportunity to represent foreigners that were locked up piqued my interest, and going to the prisons and the courts in Afghanistan was a unique experience.
Can the law be effective in Afghanistan, which has been a war zone?
Discrepancies with the way laws are followed or not followed in Afghanistan also encouraged me to stay in the country. There’s still a war. They call it a post-conflict zone, but I don’t think it’s post-conflict.
“I was interested in seeing if I could represent people in the Afghan courts. I’m a litigator. I love fighting in court.”
Kimberley Motley, was your early life in Milwaukee a help in your career in Afghanistan?
Yes, because it’s hard to teach street smarts. My school was very middle class, whereas my neighbourhood was not middle class, and that helped me understand how to deal with people from different backgrounds. I was in the Milwaukee public defender’s office, but it’s very different to be an attorney in Milwaukee and in Afghanistan. The cultural and religious aspects are different.
Is the religious aspect very strong in Afghanistan?
It’s strong in the legal sense because Islamic law is the law one needs to practice in Afghanistan, as denoted in the constitution.
What kind of people do you represent there?
Civilians, international companies and NGOs. I’ve represented the British embassy for a number of years as their honorary legal counsel. I still practice in Afghanistan and in the US, and now that I have cases all over the world my base is on an aeroplane.
Criminal defense is your specialty?
Also human rights, and my specialty within those realms is litigation. Human rights and criminal defense is often very similar. In Afghanistan, if a woman is raped she can be charged with adultery as a crime. People look at that as a human rights case but I look at that as a criminal defense case, because she’s charged with a crime and I’m defending her as her attorney.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I believe in women’s rights. I don’t know if that makes me a feminist. I think everyone should believe in women’s rights.
Has your career in Afghanistan been more difficult as a woman?
It was a benefit. As a foreign woman in Afghanistan I represented Afghan women and was able to talk and interact with them. A lot of people in prison in Afghanistan refuse to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, and male lawyers were being accused of adultery simply by representing women. I can represent Afghan women and men and get a more holistic view of the country.
What kind of society is Afghanistan today?
Complicated. It’s a conflict zone. The people are tired of the fighting, want to live in peace and their children to go to school. There are terrorist factions, not just the Taliban but really bad guys trying to get control of the country.
Is the Taliban presence very strong?
Unfortunately, they’re a threat to everybody in Afghanistan. People live in a state of fear and great anxiety.
When you are there what kind of life do you lead?
I move around quite a bit because I have a lot of clients. I live in the protection I’m comfortable with within the country. I dress like a westerner.
“I always go and visit a country’s prisons and talk to prisoners to understand what their experience is.”
Kimberley Motley, in your book you describe the dramatic case of Layla who you managed to free in Kabul and take to Vienna. What happened?
Layla, a young girl living in Vienna, was engaged to a man in Austria. Her family would accept him marrying her if she got the blessing of her grandmother in Afghanistan. When she went there her uncle took away her passport and her phone, locked her in a house and told her that she was going to be marrying another man in a week and wasn’t going back to Austria. She managed to get a phone and contacted us. To find her took us five days. It was very difficult, but we did rescue her, put her in hiding in Kabul, and then took her back to Vienna.
Do you still do this for money or do you have some feelings?
It’s both now. Money isn’t the primary motivating factor, but I do have three kids, including a daughter in college and a son that’s about to start college.
What do they say about their mother being in Kabul?
I have bills to pay like everybody else. They understand what I’m doing. This is my job of almost 12 years so it’s not new. My daughter took a gap year and travelled with me for a year.
What happened when you defended the graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado in Cuba?
When Castro died the government arrested dissidents and Danilo was locked up for about six weeks when I was asked for help by one of his family members. They didn’t know where he was or what he was charged with, so I went to Cuba and found out where he was being held. He wasn’t being charged with anything. He was just being held. And then I was arrested.
Yes. Two of his friends who were my translators were also arrested. They locked me up with the men for six hours to intimidate me, but I always go and visit a country’s prisons and talk to prisoners to understand what their experience is. That is a really good way to educate myself about the legal system. I was deported and a couple weeks later he was released from jail and subsequently went to the U.S. Congress and testified, which was great.
Are prison conditions very different from one country to another?
In Afghan prisons there are a lot of communicable diseases. There’s no program of education like in Western prisons. The inmates just sit there all day and make their own program.
How are prisons in the United States?
No prison is perfect, but there’s more programming in the United States, they are more sanitary, there’s a complaint system and non-violent offenders are separated from violent offenders.
Kids growing up in Milwaukee
Kimberley Motley at a market in Afghanistan
Kimberley Motley outside a prison in Afghanistan
Kimberley Motley working in Afghanistan
An Afghani court
An Afghani prison
“I’ll never be satisfied because it’s not about me, it’s about my clients.”
Kimberley motley, how do people know about you and become your client?
Usually they’ve heard about me.
What do you try to do?
I try to maintain a professional relationship and represent my clients using the laws in the best way possible to protect their interests.
Why are you so good at what you do?
I like my job. I like my clients. I believe in my cases. I try to put in the proper time to represent my clients well, which every client deserves.
Do you have many clients at any one time?
Due to my training as a public defender in Milwaukee, where every attorney is required to have anywhere from 150 to 200 clients individually each year, I’ve always maintained a huge caseload.
Are you satisfied with your achievements?
I’ll never be satisfied because it’s not about me, it’s about my clients. I can protect them legally but many are very poor and vulnerable. I can win a case, but it doesn’t take them out of their situation. If I represent an Afghan woman who is charged with rape and adultery and I win the trial, it doesn’t change the fact that her family still want to kill her because she’s “dishonored” them. Families in Afghanistan are very judgmental. It’s more of an uneducated society and they discriminate against women without any consequences. Women are not looked at as equal to men.
Will things change for the better, or is this the way it is?
Definitely there is a will for things to change for the better, especially for women. In over 10 years of being in Afghanistan, I’ve seen more women in politics, more women in law, more women doctors, more and more boys and girls being educated, so those are great things. But there’s so much more of a long way to go.
Meanwhile the American military is still in Afghanistan?
There are not as many troops in Afghanistan as five years ago, but the US government still has a vested interest in Afghanistan. I hope they continue to be there. There’s a value in their being there for sure.
What are your plans for the future?
What I’m doing now: to go to Afghanistan and other countries. It feels like this is what I am supposed to be doing.
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