Defender of the Week #4: Kimberley Motley

(Photo: Helle Moos/made in Copenhagen)

“The laws are ours, and no matter what your ethnicity, nationality, gender, race, they belong to us.

– Kimberley Motley

‘Defender of the Week’ places the spotlight on individuals who have been tireless in their advocacy for human rights. This week international litigator, Kimberley Motley, is Defender of the Week.

Despite being American, Motley has been Afghanistan’s first international lawyer to litigate since 2008. Referred to as Afghanistan’s most effective defence lawyers, Motley is also licensed to practice in the U.S., Dubai International Financial Courts, and the International Criminal Court. 

Motley first went to Afghanistan as part of a program run by the U.S. to train Afghan lawyers. In her 2014 TED talk, Motley stated that, during this time:

“I went around the country and I talked to hundreds of people that were locked up, and I talked to many businesses that were also operating in Afghanistan. And within these conversations, I started hearing the connections between the businesses and the people, and how laws that were meant to protect them were being underused, while gross and illegal punitive measures were overused. And so this put me on a quest for justness, and what justness means to me is using laws for their intended purpose, which is to protect. The role of laws is to protect. So as a result, I decided to open up a private practice, and I became the first foreigner to litigate in Afghan courts.”

Motley’s first client was an African woman who had been stranded in an Afghan prison for 2 years with her 3-year-old daughter. She had been handed down a 14 year sentence after a European pimp had sent her to Afghanistan as a drug mule. Motley eventually arranged her release by presidential decree. 

As well as spending six months of the year in a fortified house in Kabul, Motley is a registered lawyer with the Australian, Canadian, German, Norwegian, British, Dutch, Italian, American, U.A.E., and French embassies in Afghanistan. This allows her the opportunity to represent expatriates involved in legal issues with Afghan authorities. 

In an article by The Daily Beast, Motley stated that she does not wear a headscarf or veil in court, revealing “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.”

In 2010, the Afghan District Attorney’s office threatened to arrest Motley upon her return to Kabul. She has been temporarily detained and grenades have been thrown at her office, yet she continues to practice in Afghanistan because the rewards of her job “far outweigh the risks.”

After her husband was shot by a 16-year-old carjacker in Milwaukee in 2014, Motley represented her husband and the police officer who shot the perpetrator; who was found guilty in 2015 and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Following this, in 2016, Motley was arrested and deported without charge from Havana, Cuba, after travelling there to represent Danilo Machado, a Cuban graffiti artist and human rights activist. She assisted in his release from El Combinado del Este in 2017.

Often described as “fearless” and “badass”, Motley is an inspirational crusader on a quest for justness in a country where women are not expected to succeed. 

Phoebe Egoroff

Founder and of Jurist International, a website focusing on the latest developments in international human rights and criminal law.

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