A Beauty Queen Takes Kabul

Kimberly Motley is now one of the most respected lawyers in Kabul, who works to release foreigners languishing in Afghan jails. Elise Jordan meets the former Mrs. Wisconsin.

09.17.10 9:54 PM ET

Kimberly Motley isn't your typical international lawyer.

A former beauty queen, wife, and mother of three, she grew up in the projects, earned a law degree and worked as a public defender before moving to Afghanistan to become one of the most respected foreign lawyers in Kabul.

Motley works for the release of foreigners languishing in Afghan jails, and often her work starts after the verdict—as in the case of an Australian on death row, convicted of murdering an Afghan colleague; a South African sentenced to fifteen years in prison on drug charges, and a Brit convicted of fraud.

In July, she negotiated the release of Bill Shaw, a former British military officer, who had been held in the notorious Pul-e-charki prison for five months.

“I get threats of being raped,” she says. “If I was a man, I’d get more death threats, I suppose. But I get those as well.”

Her criticism of what she describes as a corrupt judicial system has brought the ire of the Afghan government, and heightened her security risk. The Afghan District Attorney’s office has threatened to arrest her next time she sets foot in Kabul.

Afghan government officials contacted for this article did not respond to inquiries, or declined to comment.

Motley, currently on home leave, is undaunted by the threat.

“I have clients back there,” she says. “They need my help.”

One of the few foreign attorneys to try a defense case in post-Taliban Afghanistan, she navigated the country’s notoriously corrupt and disorganized courts for the release of Shaw, who was accused by the Afghan government of paying a bribe—an allegation prompted, he says, by his complaint to the Attorney General’s office about an Afghan official who refused to give him a receipt when Shaw reclaimed two armored vehicles that had been impounded.

Afghan authorities arrested Shaw on March 4 this year, and the former officer was provided an Afghan lawyer who spoke no English. Five days later, Motley paid a visit to him in the prison, offering to become his new lawyer. Shaw, now recuperating with his family in Spain, credits his release “to Kimberly and her dogged determination to succeed.”

Motley has developed her own approach to operating in the Afghan courts. During a trial, she never wears a veil or a dress. “I need to look like a man as much as possible,” says the 35-year-old beauty, who has a South Korean mother and an American father.  “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.”

Being a woman in what is very much a man’s world is also dangerous. “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.”

Shaw describes the young lawyer as fearless in the handling of his case. “Unafraid of the many male bullies in Afghanistan, she used her knowledge and expertise to arrange things that others wouldn’t entertain,” says Shaw, adding that while the British Embassy wasn’t able to move him from another prison to Pul-e-Charki, Motley arranged it in a matter of days.

Motley, who was crowned Mrs. Wisconsin in 2004, grew up in Milwaukee and earned her law degree at Marquette University. She had never traveled outside the U.S. before she began working to rebuild Afghanistan’s legal system in 2008 as a part of the State Department’s Justice Sector Program. Traveling around the countryside—visiting women’s prisons, juvenile detention centers, and some of Afghanistan’s roughest and toughest jails—she found that “not only were due process violations being ignored for virtually all of the accused persons, but there were quite a few foreigners trapped within the legal and prison system,” she says.

In addition to her own clients, Motley says that several Sri Lankan, Pakistani, and thirteen African men are imprisoned in Afghanistan as of late July; she estimates that in the women’s prisons, at least one in ten is a foreign woman, most of them detained at the Kabul airport on allegations of drug trafficking. “Some of them are kidnapped and used as [drug] mules,” she says. “They come to Afghanistan and they are caught. Many of these women can’t call home…they haven’t spoken to anyone in years.”

Next year, all prisons will revert to Afghan control, even if the U.S. military will still operate its own detention operations in the country.

In terms of foreign insurgents, Vice Admiral Robert Harward, who is in charge of U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan, said in a press conference last month that there were "less than 50" foreign suspects detained in Afghanistan linked to the insurgency, and that two-thirds came from Pakistan.

When asked if she would consider defending an accused insurgent, Motley says that she doesn’t want to rule anyone out until “I knew the story.”

As a registered attorney with the American, British, Italian, Norwegian, German, and Canadian Embassies, Motley is frequently contacted by expatriates who have somehow gotten in trouble with the Afghan authorities. Some incidents amount to no more than a kerfuffle—such as the case of the aid worker who wasn’t allowed to leave the country because officials claimed his passport was a fake. (After 20 hours of shuttling between the Attorney General’s office, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Motley procured an official letter for the aid worker to present at the airport, allowing him to leave.)

The Shaw trial, however, was more intense and taught her an important lesson about some of her fellow-foreigners who, she says, “suggested that if money were paid, this would all go away.” Motley says she refused. “I basically told people, ‘If that is what it takes, I don’t want to be on this case. I am bound by the same professional ethical duties in Afghanistan as I am in the U.S.’”

Her friend Tom Rosenstock, an attorney who has worked in Kabul since 2008 and who put Shaw and Motley in touch, says that the young lawyer may be doing more “to promote rule of law than large ambitious programs which never get to where the rubber meets the road.”

A Western diplomat, who would not speak for attribution, added to the praise. “Kimberly is the kind of person who makes you change [your] opinion about lawyers,” he said, citing what he believed was her valuable contributions: In addition to being the first registered Western lawyer to defend foreigners, Motley “produced a valuable analysis of the condition of juvenile offenders in the Afghan justice and correctional system, and she created an open source website to publish Afghan laws translated into English.”

Motley herself is humble, viewing her work as just one contribution to necessary reform. “Justice, ethics, protection of human rights—the people deserve it,” she says.

Elise Jordan is a New York-based writer who frequently travels to Afghanistan. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council from 2008-09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.