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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    July 20, 2018

    Kimberley Motley: Spinning Playlists in Afghanistan and Beyond

    Kimberley Motley is the only American litigating in Afghanistan's courts. The 2003 Marquette University Law School graduate, former Milwaukee public defender, and former Mrs. Wisconsin now has an international practice on six continents.

    Joe Forward

    Kimberley Motley in Kabul

    Kimberley Motley in Kabul, Afghanistan. Motley describes herself and other legal warriors as “disrupters,” and some clearly don’t like how she has disrupted the status quo in Afghanistan’s legal system. Photo: Jim Huylebroek

    When Attorney Kimberley Motley returned to Kabul, Afghanistan, her driver and interpreter, both Afghan natives, were acting strangely. First, they thought a car was following them from the airport. Then, they insisted on parking the vehicle behind the gates of Motley’s Kabul residence, off the street and out of view.1

    Khalil, Motley’s interpreter and assistant, and her driver, Khadir, seemed nervous about the car while Motley sifted through her keys to open the front door of her residence.

    “What’s the problem?” Motley asked. “You guys are acting strange. It’s during the day.”

    “We are afraid for ourselves,” said Khalil.

    While Motley was out of the country, someone threw a hand grenade at her house, where she has her office. It did not detonate, but it broke the stained glass on the outdoor balcony that overlooked the bustling street. It was either a dud or a message.

    “You got to relax,” Motley said. “I’m back. I am a bulletproof vest for you all.”

    Motley, the subject of an award-winning documentary, said Khalil and Khadir had not returned to the house since the grenade incident. That’s why they were acting strange. They didn’t know what might happen when they got there. Motley was unfazed.

    This was just another day for Motley, the only American and foreigner litigating in Afghanistan’s courts. She has been working there for a decade, and now has a client base, including a significant pro bono practice, that extends well beyond Afghanistan.

    She has represented clients on every continent except Antarctica, including high-profile political figures, foreigners in Afghan prisons, and women and children victim to cultural norms at odds with actual laws meant to protect them.

    In May, Motley returned to Wisconsin to discuss her international work at the Western District of Wisconsin Bar Association, and she sat down for an interview to talk more about her life, her work, her family, and what keeps her practicing abroad.

    It All Starts in Milwaukee

    There’s a reason why Motley was the first and only American lawyer to litigate in Afghanistan’s courts. Others have tried, but Motley is on her own there.

    Joe ForwardJoe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.

    “I’ve tried to hire international lawyers and the longest anyone has lasted is a week,” she said. “When I go to the prison, there is no guard there who is going to protect you. You can’t just go to Afghanistan and do cases. It doesn’t work like that.”

    Motley said the work requires visiting the prisons, including the Pul-e Charki prison. The largest prison in Afghanistan, Pul-e Charki is known as the “prison of death.”2

    “You have to be in the prisons with the prisoners, and it makes a lot of people uncomfortable” Motley said. “If you are weak over here, you’re going to make me weak and then I’m going to get hurt. I’ve been discouraged about hiring other foreign lawyers. You can be scared, but you can’t show it. You have to work through the fear.”   Motley’s fearlessness has roots in Milwaukee, where she grew up.

    “I’ve always looked at Afghanistan as one big dangerous neighborhood, and I grew up in one,” Motley said. “There weren’t bombs going off, but there were different problems in Milwaukee. I was always aware of my surroundings, suspicious of the government.”

    Immersed in a completely new culture in Afghanistan, Motley’s Milwaukee upbringing also allowed her to adjust to cultural differences and language barriers.

    “My father is a former Air Force man. He’s black, and my mother is Korean and we grew up in the projects in Milwaukee. My neighborhood was very black, my household was very Korean and black, and my schools were very white.”

    “I’ve always had the benefit of being able to interact with people from different cultures and different socioeconomic backgrounds, which I think definitely helped me.”

    Although MotIey’s family didn’t have much money, her parents sent Kim and her three siblings to private schools, where they could receive more individualized attention.

    Once she graduated from the eighth grade, she enrolled in the Chapter 220 program and attended Whitefish Bay High School.

    She didn’t know it as a child, but she was also preparing to be a lawyer. “My mother is an immigrant, so English is her second language. I was extremely shy, but my mother was so uncomfortable with her English, so I was always speaking for her.

    “You don’t think about it as a kid, but I was always very comfortable speaking to adults about business.”

    Kim Motley interviews children at a juvenile detention center in Jalalabad

    Kim Motley interviews children at a juvenile detention center in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. She independently visited the facility to learn more about the province’s juvenile legal system and conduct research about the kids locked up in the facility. Photo: Lorenzo Tugnoli

    Motley went on to attend U.W.-Eau Claire, where she met her husband, Claude. Afghanistan and lawyering were very far from her mind back then.

    “I wanted to be a DJ, not realizing you don’t have to go to college to be a DJ,” said Motley, who often talks of law in musical terms, the playlists she creates for clients.

    “Of course, like every parent, my father and my mother wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. But I fought against that. I just wanted to be a DJ.”

    Pregnant with her first child at age 20, Motley and Claude moved to Milwaukee and she enrolled in the paralegal program at Milwaukee Area Technical College, finishing quickly. But she kept going. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at U.W.-Milwaukee, started a master’s degree, and enrolled in law school at Marquette.

    She had her second child while in her second year of law school and graduated from the master’s program and law school at the same time. “I just made it work,” she said.

    That level of commitment did not go unrecognized, because in 2004 she won the Mrs. Wisconsin-America Pageant, and used the platform to talk about juvenile justice.

    Her best friend dared her to enter the pageant as part of a bet, and she ended up winning. “It was a great experience and I met a lot of amazing, intelligent, and overall great women,” said Motley, who represented Wisconsin in the Mrs. America Pageant.

    “My platform was to decriminalize truancy as a crime in Wisconsin,” she said. “It seemed very counterproductive and insane to me to detain juveniles for excessive truancy as opposed to trying to create programming to alleviate the truancy problem.

    “Many of the juveniles charged were poor children from single-parent households whose parents needed them to watch younger siblings so that they could work.”

    The Disruptorz

    The DisruptorzKim Motley likes to talk about lawyers as superheroes, protecting people who need protection. Now, she has created a comic book called “The Disruptorz,” through the Motley Cares Foundation, a nonprofit that funds human rights projects.5

    “It’s a superhero law firm of lawyers and investigators that travel around the world, dealing with very hot button cases,” Motley said. “We will infuse somewhat real-life examples to educate people about things that are happening in the world.”

    Hard copies will include footnotes of specific laws to educate people about the laws in different countries. A digital version will take people to a website that Motley is creating,, an open-source, free encyclopedia of laws in all countries for people to access.

    “I thought it was crazy that there is no website where people can just look at the laws in their country,” Motley said. “That’s what I want this to be. I want to continue to represent people, but I want my law practice to be very intentional in helping the greater good.”

    Motley is seeking financial investors and a publisher to stay independent and hopes to release a full comic book at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2019. She has launched a crowdfunding campaign and has a six-page sample of the comic book available on request. Interested in supporting The Disruptorz? Visit to make a donation.

    The Work Begins

    With her M.A. and J.D. in hand, it was time for this beauty queen to decide how to use her education. Motley knew she wanted to be a litigator, but she didn’t know where.

    “I didn’t want to be in a big law firm, or a really small one either. I just knew I wanted to be in court. I met somebody from the public defender’s office and she liked me. I didn’t really apply, but I got a job offer with the State Public Defenders’ office in Racine and eventually was transferred to the Milwaukee office.”

    Motley wasn’t sure about it. She thought it might be sad. “Then again, I had three kids. I took the job and I loved it,” said Motley, who worked as a public defender for five years.

    “I always loved listening to people and hearing their stories and empowering them,” she said. “And I loved the other public defenders. They are the true warriors in the courtrooms.”

    Motley toiled in the art of defense litigation, crafting her style while her playlist grew.

    “I really saw it as musical,” she said, “the different genres of people, the playlists people created for their clients to argue for them in the best way possible, and the different clubs they go to, the courtrooms, to argue these cases. It was all very interesting.”

    I’ve always looked at Afghanistan as one big dangerous neighborhood, and I grew up in one. There weren’t bombs going off, but there were different problems in Milwaukee.

    Then one day, Motley had lunch with a friend, Megan Morrisey, also a public defender. “She was telling me about a friend, Erik Guenther, who was in Afghanistan, training and mentoring Afghan lawyers. I thought, ‘that sounds cool.’”

    Motley was getting antsy as a public defender. “I didn’t even look at the job description, I just sent my CV for the Afghanistan job. Two weeks later, Erik called me for an interview.”

    Motley had never traveled outside the country. She looked at a map to see where Afghanistan was located. Then she hopped on a plane for training in Virginia.

    The program was through the U.S. State Department’s Justice Sector Support Program (JSSP). The two-week training focused on cultural immersion and undoubtedly served as a chance to weed out candidates, offering them a chance to back out.

    “The training terrifies you,” Motley said. “You think that when you walk off the plane in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber is going to run up and give you a hug. Yes, I was scared.”

    But the money was good. Motley was making about $50,000 per year as a public defender in Milwaukee, and had school debt. She and Claude, now with their three kids, had just moved out East, so Claude could attend law school.

    In Afghanistan, she would be making more than quadruple her salary. “It was really a financial decision. I thought, ‘okay, I’ll go over there for a year and then I’ll come back. We can get our debts together and everything. Just one year and I’ll come back.’”

    Kimberley Motley with Afghan family

    Naghma, the young girl under her father’s arm, was married off at age six to a money’s lender’s son to pay family medical bills and other debts after the family of nine children fell on hard times. When Kim heard about this case, she arranged an assembly of Afghan elders and got Naghma out of the marriage and back to her family. An anonymous donor paid off the debt. Photo: Sandra Calligaro

    Kabul, Afghanistan

    Motley first arrived in Kabul, the country’s capital city with a population of 4.6 million people, in September 2008. That same month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released a report on the “situation in Afghanistan,” noting:

    “The influence of the insurgency has expanded beyond traditionally volatile areas and has increased in provinces neighboring Kabul. Incidents stemming from cross border activities from Pakistan have increased significantly in terms of numbers and sophistication. The insurgency’s dependence on asymmetric tactics has also led to a sharp rise in the number of civilian casualties. Civilians are also being killed as a result of military operations carried out by Afghan and international security forces, in particular in situations in which insurgents conceal themselves in populated areas. Another worrying development is the fact that attacks on aid-related targets and non-governmental organizations have become more frequent and more deadly.”3

    The report noted more than 120 attacks on humanitarian programs in 2008, resulting in 30 deaths and 92 abductions. And an assessment of 90 of 400 districts in Afghanistan concluded that they were “completely beyond the control” of Afghanistan’s government.

    Motley was not prepared for this chaos. Besides her training in Virginia, the only thing Motley did to prepare for her cultural immersion was read Three Cups of Tea.4

    The system was so stacked against people who were accused of crimes that it just didn’t make sense. There was never a ‘not guilty.’ They didn’t know that was an option.

    “It was a beautiful mess,” said Motley, noting her first time on Afghan soil, in Kabul. “You drive on the road and there’s cattle, there’s kids playing with kites, there’s cars going every which way, there’s no traffic signs, no rules. There’s people walking, and it just looks crazy. I still haven’t seen anything like that, ever.”

    For a year, Motley was charged with training Afghan defense attorneys. At that time, Afghanistan’s new constitution was four years old, and the country was in the early stages of building a justice system. Previous training focused on judges and prosecutors.

    “I was sent there to train Afghan lawyers on how to be lawyers, but it was ridiculous because I had no clue. You can’t train them from the binders. That’s why I started going to the prisons, and going to court. None of the other lawyers were doing that.”

    She started to see how things worked, while observing court hearings. “A lot of people were getting railroaded,” said Motley. “They were presumed guilty.”

    “The system was so stacked against people who were accused of crimes that it just didn’t make sense. There was never a ‘not guilty.’ They didn’t know that was an option.”

    Kimberley Motley in downtown Kabul with Conor Woodma

    On a walk in downtown Kabul with Conor Woodman, an Irish author, filmmaker, and director based in London. Conor is helping Kim write her memoir, which is expected in early 2019. Photo: Jim Huylebroek

    Solo Practice in Afghanistan

    Motley had no intention of staying for more than a year. “It just happened,” she said. She realized that people needed help there, and no one else was going to provide it.

    Her first visit to Pul-e Charki prison left an impression on her. “I was overwhelmed with the conditions,” she said. “I was walking around in the winter there and saw many men with sunken cheeks, halfway starving. They just stared out at me through the bars.”

    Then she heard it: English speakers, coming from the behind the bars. It was Bevan Campbell and Anthony Malone. Campbell, from South Africa, was jailed on possession of drug charges. Malone, a former British paratrooper, was jailed on bribery charges.

    “They had been locked away for years,” Motley said. They pleaded with her to read their letters, about what had happened to them, and to help them. Ultimately, she took the letters, which described their journey through Afghanistan’s criminal justice system.

    “I read how they were paraded into court with no witnesses, evidence, or legal representation,” Motley said. “They went to court and had no idea what was being said to them and were not provided a translator. All these things were significant due process violations according to Afghan law. They were both convicted after 10 minutes.”

    The letters confirmed what she had already observed in Afghan courts, the accused dragged into courtrooms, sometimes with bags over their heads, and no opportunity to present a defense. “As a result of meeting Bevan and Anthony, I decided to investigate the legal system a little more in Afghanistan,” said Motley.

    Motley continued to observe serious due process violations, often innocent people forced to give false confessions signed with their thumbprints, admitting to terrorism.

    “I decided that it was my time to start disrupting things,” she said. “I quit my job as a contractor with the U.S. State Department-funded program, and opened a law practice in Afghanistan.”


    The first nine months, she worked pro bono while representing jailed foreigners, with permission to practice in the Afghan courts. She used interpreters and translation tools. The majority of Afghanistan’s people speak Dari or Pashto, official Afghan languages.

    One of her first clients was Bill Shaw, a British Army officer jailed on bribery charges. She lost her first trial, and Shaw was sentenced to two years in prison.

    “I came in with exhibits and this American litigation style,” she said. “After that, I went to a lot of court hearings and visited several jirgas, which are part of the informal legal system. I saw how things really worked, culturally, within the legal system.”

    She learned about Sharia Law, and cited passages from the Holy Quran to make cultural and religious arguments. “I started to understand my audience,” she said.

    On appeal, Shaw was cleared of the charges and released. Media attention followed, and people started reaching out to Motley for help, both foreigners and Afghan citizens.

    One of her clients was a young Afghan woman, Gulnaz, who at age 15 was raped by her cousin’s husband, then jailed for adultery. The assault resulted in a pregnancy. The judges told Gulnaz she would be freed if she married her attacker, but she declined.

    “She had an Afghan lawyer at the time. The lawyer was trying to convince her to marry her attacker and she was saying no,” Motley said. “And the judges were mad at her.”

    They sentenced Gulnaz to 12 years in prison, and she gave birth to a daughter on the prison floor, with no medical help, Motley said. Ultimately, Motley represented her and obtained a presidential pardon from former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

    “It was the first time that a woman had been given a presidential pardon for any type of moral crimes case,” Motley noted. “Because of Gulnaz, women were more emboldened to report abuse because of a new unit within the attorney general’s office where women can go if they are victims of crimes.”

    Motley describes herself and other legal warriors as “disrupters,” and some clearly don’t like how Motley has disrupted the status quo in Afghanistan’s legal system.

    “Not everyone is cool with it,” Motley said. “I had a grenade thrown at my office. I’ve been called a spy, called crazy. I have been arrested. But this is just part of the job. And I know I’m on the right side here, because everyone deserves legal representation.”

    The Work Continues Abroad

    Motley, founder of Motley Legal Services, continues to litigate in Afghanistan courts and has extended her legal representation globally. She has represented clients on every continent except Antarctica, with involvement in high-profile situations.

    In 2016, Motley was arrested in Cuba while attempting to represent a Cuban artist jailed for a video he shared on Facebook, after the death of Fidel Castro.

    More recently, Motley was instrumental in negotiations with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohammad for the release of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, twice imprisoned for crimes widely viewed as false and politically motivated.

    Motley performs about 30 percent of her work on a pro bono basis, and she finds ways to navigate the system for clients in countries like Afghanistan, where laws may conflict with culture, religion, or politics, or where laws may not exist at all.

    “Laws are just words on a piece of paper,” Motley said. “It’s up to us to bring them to life. They don’t mean anything until we find ways to use them.”

    This work is difficult on many levels. Motley travels abroad nine months of the year and maintains a residence in Afghanistan, spending three months per year with her family in America.

    Her three kids are between the ages of 12 and 21. “My family is used to this lifestyle now. It’s just like a parent being part of the military,” she said. “I figure out other ways to parent, and technology really allows me to stay connected to them.”

    Motley’s drive is undeterred, despite death threats and danger zones. In January of this year, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs issued a “do not travel” advisory on Afghanistan, “due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict.”

    But Motley is still there. Her playlists, and the blueprints she has created to navigate unchartered legal territory in Afghanistan and elsewhere, continue. “I love these clients. I love the work. It just fits my personality, and that keeps me going,” she said.

    “Often, laws are not used or they are ignored. It happens to people in Afghanistan. It happens everywhere, including the U.S. I just want people to be able to use the laws as they were meant to be used. Lawyers play a big role in making that happen.”


    1 These events were captured on video, in a documentary about Motley’s life and work. Motley’s Law (2015).

    2 Kabul’s prison of death, BBC News (Feb. 27, 2006) (“Afghanistan’s Pul-e Charki prison is notorious for the murder and torture of thousands of people during the Communist era.”).

    3 The Situation in Afghanistan and its Implications for International Peace and Security, United Nations, General Assembly Security Council (Sept. 23, 2008).

    4 Three Cups of Tea, published in 2009, tells the story of Greg Mortenson, who spearheaded efforts to build schools, mostly for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan after impoverished villagers took him in and nursed him back to health. Mortenson, a mountaineer, became lost after attempting to summit K2 in Pakistan. (Note: this book is the subject of some controversy.)



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