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Afghanistan’s first foreign lawyer spills on trials and tribulations

Afghanistan’s first foreign lawyer spills on trials and tribulations

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The first foreign litigator to practice in Afghanistan has spoken out about what prompted her to shake up her career and move to an unknown country, and the lessons she’s picked up along the way.

Kimberley Motley, founder of Motley Legal Services, was a special guest speaker at this year’s Relativity Fest, held in Chicago 30 September–3 October, where she offered a compelling presentation about her experience operating as Afghanistan’s first foreign lawyer.

“In 2008, I went to Afghanistan. It was my first time leaving the US, I’d never traveled outside and I went there to train and mentor Afghan defense attorneys,” Ms Motley told the crowd.

“The first thing I remember seeing off the plane was a burka. The burkas were confronting to me, and the first time I saw a burka it was very scary for me, it was a very oppressive sight for me and it made me very sad. I just didn't like it. But now, after having worked in Afghanistan for over 10 years, I have a different relationship with burkas. I still don’t like them, but I understand it a little bit better.


“Now as scary as a burka was for me to see, it wasn’t nearly as scary to see my first trial. I remember going to my first court hearing in 2008 and I figured since I’m there to represent people then I really need to understand the court system. So I went to my first trial and I went to the national security court. They bring in this guy and his hands and his legs are shackled and they have a bag over his head. He looked more like a hostage than a defendant."

The appearance of Ms Motley marked the first time a foreigner had ever sat in a national security court in Afghanistan.

“As soon as court started, the police officer ceremoniously rips the bag off this guy's head and that began court,” she recalls.

“The prosecutor read off the indictment and the indictment basically said this guy was a taxi driver and was driving people around and police officers stopped the taxi driver and found guns and phones in the taxi. Based on that, they determined that this guy was a terrorist. So, in the car were about 4 or 5 different passengers.

“The first thing he said was, ‘I’m not a terrorist, I’m a taxi driver’. The guy didn’t have a lawyer and while he’s talking he said, ‘If I’m a terrorist, bring the man before me that accused me of this’. The guy said, ‘What if I can prove I’m not a terrorist? I’m a taxi driver. I’m a father of eight kids, I’m just making a living’.

“The judges then started nervously looking at me and they’re sitting there judging this guy, and so the judge reaches over the counter and said, ‘What’s this? This is a confession letter that you signed’. The guy says, ‘I can’t read and write. They forced me to sign it’. And the guy started showing his bruises, and said ‘They beat me, they made me sign that confession’. And with that the judges nervously looked at me and pounded on the table and said ‘Don’t disrupt me’. So anything this guy had to say was done in court, it was over. Five minutes later, the judges found the guy guilty and gave him eight years in prison, labeled a terrorist for life.”

The interaction prompted Ms Motley to quit her job and start taking cases in the country.

“In 2009, I became the first foreign litigator to litigate in the Afghan court,” she says.

“But before I started taking cases, this [case] put me on a quest for justice. And what justice means for me is using the law to protect. The role of law is to protect and I knew that in order to buy into this idea of justice then I’d need to be all-in.

“So as a result, I knew that although this theory of justice is what I’m striving for, I developed a different litigation way of practising law. And just like many lawyers, of course I trademarked it. So I called it Motley’s Law. And what Motley’s Law is is a very immersive practice of law that uses techniques which takes into consideration human behaviour but also analyses cultural, environmental and other factors. I immerse myself in different legal systems.

“... The thing about representing clients in Afghanistan and around the world, part of the process I go through is empowering my clients. So one of the things that I really enjoy doing is have my clients sign contracts. But this contract means so much to me because for a lot of my clients that I represent, this is the first document that they’ve ever been asked to sign in their lives.

“For many of my clients, this is the only document that they’re ever asked to sign in their lives and it represents their choice of choosing me to represent them and for many clients, they’re in such vulnerable situations that this is an empowering tool. And it’s interesting, that transformation. A lot of my clients, once they sign this document, that’s when a lot of them start asking me questions, which I think is great."

In conclusion, Ms Motley encouraged Relativity Fest attendees to join her on her quest for “justness”, noting that lawyers have all the power to make a significant impact on the lives of those around them, even where they perhaps least expect it. 

“I want to encourage you to live a borderless life,” she said.

Relativity Fest, hosted by the team at Relativity, heard from 300-plus speakers, including American social psychologist and TED speaker Amy Cuddy on how lawyers can be more present and yield better results, and Steptoe & Johnson’s Anna Frye and Ryan Flinspach on ‘The plight of the lawyer technologist’.

For a full recap of the Chicago mega-conference, click here.

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