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This Lawyer Is Dedicated To Fighting Corruption In Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan: We think we've seen it all before. The hilly landscapes that dip gently inwards have shaped international politics and been the subject matter for countless documentaries and news reports. The country’s women became part of the UK’s rallying cry for militaristic intervention back in 2001, when Cherie Blair asked the international community to “save” these women after bombs had been dropped on their homes. After the well-publicised pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, it's fair to say that war torn imagery of Afghanistan is never far from the forefront of our minds.
What you won’t have seen in prior depictions of Afghanistan, is internationally acclaimed litigator, human rights lawyer and ex-beauty pageant queen, Kimberley Motley, being pulled over at check points while rapping along to Lil Wayne. Given that she used to want to be a DJ, her music choice isn’t so surprising, but when she lyrically speaks of her aims to “remix my laws like I’d have done with my music” you start to realise that – as far lawyers are concerned – Motley is pretty unique.

Motley has been litigating in Afghanistan since 2008. Not only has she fought in several high profile cases, such as the kidnapping of two British children in Afghanistan, and been the first Western lawyer allowed to litigate in the courts there, she has also been named one of Richard Branson’s most inspiring people in a post on Virgin’s website in 2014. More recently, she has become the subject of a feature-length documentary, which charts her fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
It was film director Nicole Nielsen Horanyi who decided to make a feature length documentary – named Motley’s Law – following Kimberley Motley’s day to day life. The film provides an upbeat and fresh look at a country which David Cameron recently called “fantastically corrupt” during an anti-corruption summit in the United Kingdom, as well as giving an intimate portrayal of why Motley does what she does, despite the dangers that fall around her.

Unlike almost everyone else in the feature length documentary, Motley barely bats an eyelid at the threats she has faced in her line of work, such as having a grenade thrown at her office and receiving rape threats. “I was born in one bad neighbourhood [in America] and Afghanistan is sometimes just like another,” she says. Motley is no conventional do-gooder, either, “People expect me to be like a hardcore NGO, which I am not,” she smiles.

Motley’s background was one of the reasons that she ended up becoming the only foreigner allowed to litigate in Afghan courts in the first place. Originally, she was raised in a “rough” area in Milwaukee. Motley suspects that seeing so many people go in and out of jail encouraged her interest in law. Having worked as a public defender in the same city for five years, Motley heard about a friend of a friend who was out in Afghanistan training lawyers. She asked them to pass on her CV.
It was as if Motley went from zero to 100. Prior to accepting the job in Afghanistan, she didn’t own a passport and had never left the United States. Then, suddenly she was to be catapulted into Afghanistan. In a way, it was a sink or swim moment but her spirit flourished. Quickly, she noticed how the laws of the country were being underused. So, what she initially saw “as a good financial opportunity because of having college fees to pay” quickly turned into something she was much more emotionally invested in, specifically after she decided to set up her own private practice in the country.

While some people might frown upon the logic, it makes total sense when industries such as law and politics are generally dominated by wealthy, white men. Although Motley may have come to her pro bono work through slightly unorthodox means, it doesn’t make it any less impressive.

Even now, she does not define herself as a human rights lawyer because she still takes a significant amount of work from paid clients. However, she does not see this as problematic as it means that she “does not have to take money from governments.” As a consequence, her financial independence means that her work can “begin and end with her clients.” So when she is representing the poorest and most vulnerable in society, she does not have to adhere to anything or anyone except the rule of law.

In her TED talk, Motley spoke about Sarha, a brave 12-year-old who survived abuse, torture and a forced marriage from her own brother and then even worse at the hands of her in-laws who wanted her to work in the sex industry. Not only did Motley represent Sahra, win the case, and win Sahra damages, she describes how this case also “sets precedence in giving Sahra and others like her a voice in the court system.”

With a serious tone, she says, “Sahra was chained to the base of her home where they contained to torture her because she did not want to be a prostitute. Eventually, she escaped because she was so strong.” After a pause, she goes on to admit: “It does irritate me when people assume I am here to represent America. I self-fund everything, I don’t take money from governments. I am just here to represent my clients.”

Vibrant and strong, Motley sees her job as a way to help empower other women: “The law is ours to own and it is women’s as well. I am going to continue rocking the laws, the cases and continuing to make people understand that they have a right to protest. Everyone needs to understand that we need to use the law for our own benefit.”

When I ask her what the steps are that she thinks we need to take, she has an answer ready: “We need to change the way that people look at law, period. It was time for us to bring honour back to the legal profession and we need to talk about law in a language that everyone can understand. It is about humanising the law and not being afraid to have conversations about it."
In the UK, legal aid fees have been slashed, meaning that lawyers are losing jobs and people are being forced to represent themselves in court. For Motley that is a huge problem because “it weakens the bar of representation globally.” Issues with representation, such as the legal aid cuts, is why Motley is working on several international projects at the moment to help poorer people feel able to access their laws.

On that note, the question has to be raised as to whether the improvement of the country’s legal system is to have more lawyers. On some level, Motley does agree that it would be great to have more women involved in the process in countries such as Afghanistan, “The thing is it isn’t just law school alone that can teach you to be a lawyer, it just teaches you the law.”

Motley continues: “We need a more open minded and practical form of training for our next generation of lawyers.” So, I ask, what is next, a Motley law school? Laughing, she tells me that, “I see myself as a global investor in human rights and I am doing it because I want to. While I am not planning on doing that yet, I am collaborating with several lawyers and mentoring.”

Knowing that she has begun setting up practices across the globe, one had to wonder when Motley will feel the job is done. “I won’t feel like my job is done until people around the world recognise that the laws are ours. No matter your ethnicity, nationality, gender, race – they belong to us.”