U.S. Lawyer Works To Change The Afghan Legal System Kimberly Motley is an American lawyer working in Afghanistan trying to make changes in the country's legal system. She initially moved there in 2008, when she took a job with the State Department to train Afghan lawyers. What she saw there shocked her.
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U.S. Lawyer Works To Change The Afghan Legal System

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U.S. Lawyer Works To Change The Afghan Legal System

U.S. Lawyer Works To Change The Afghan Legal System

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KIMBERLY MOTLEY: I had many people that also were not supportive. And it wasn't just Afghans. It was also internationals that weren't supportive. I had many people - a lot of internationals, frankly - Americans who told me that, you know, as a woman, I shouldn't be doing this.


That's Kimberly Motley, an American lawyer in Afghanistan. In 2008, she picked up and left her native Milwaukee where she lived with her husband and two kids, and she moved to Kabul. It wasn't just the first time she'd been to a conflict zone; it was the first time she'd ever been out of the country. Motley had worked for years as a public defender and believes everyone has the right to a fair trial. So, she was shocked to see prisoners languishing without any legal help in Afghanistan's jails. She made it her mission to give legal representation to foreigners imprisoned in Afghanistan and then later to Afghans. Kimberly Motley is our Sunday Conversation.

MOTLEY: My kids were younger. And so they didn't totally understand what I was doing. But generally, my husband was extremely supportive. Anyone outside of that, just in my family, just didn't really quite get it. And to be frank, I didn't really get it at the time. It was just sort of a career move that I thought was a good move to make.

MARTIN: Can you describe the first time, perhaps, you stepped foot into an Afghan prison. Some of these are very notorious, I'm thinking, in particular of a prison called Policharki, outside of Kabul.

MOTLEY: I was obviously very anxious and also very scared. Part of the tour that we went to, we were actually sent to an area in which the prisoners were allowed to make tools. You know, shovels and picks and things like that. And I remember just looking around the room and seeing how there weren't that many guards there and how many prisoners that were there. And so I just thought of a million ways that we could have been attacked. In addition to the fact that there wasn't any running water, it was extremely cold because there wasn't any heat, any electricity. You hear coughing everywhere. So, it was a very, very eye-opening experience.

MARTIN: The justice system in Afghanistan is complicated, at best, described by American legal officials as chaotic and flat-out corrupt. How did you begin to try to navigate that system?

MOTLEY: Well, it's a system that I'm always still learning from. And so, what helped me was to go and sit and view various trials. I viewed dozens upon dozens of trials before I even took any cases.

MARTIN: So, you started to represent Afghans, and there was one high-profile case I'd like to ask you about; a young girl named Naghma who became your client. Can you tell us her story?

MOTLEY: Well, basically, Naghma was a 6-year-old Pashtun girl whose father, Taj Mohammad, owed money to another Afghan man in the amount of $2,500. And so the Afghan man, you know, kept coming to Taj and saying I want my money. And Taj Mohammad is a father of eight children and he lives in a refugee camp. So, he was doing what he could to try to pay the money back. His wife was very ill. He also had to pay for her medical expenses. And pretty much it came to a head, where the guy wanted his money immediately. And so the man called a jirga, which is basically an informal court within the Afghan informal justice system, where you invite village elders, you invite religious leaders and you sit and talk about it. And whatever is decided is what's decided, and that's sort of a court ruling. So, based on this jirga, since it was decided that Taj Mohammad did not have the money to satisfy the debt, the elders and the mullahs basically decided that Taj Mohammad needs to give his 6-year-old daughter in lieu of the debt to his debtor. And that the 6-year-old daughter would then marry the 20-year-old son.

MARTIN: So, how did you come into the picture?

MOTLEY: Well, I was contacted by several people. There were varied concerns - internationals as well as Afghans. I told them what needs to happen is that there needs to be a second jirga. And so I told people, I said, you know, I'm happy to get another jirga together but also part of my getting another jirga together will also require them all agreeing that I'm also in charge of this jirga.

MARTIN: They agreed to that?

MOTLEY: They did agree to that, yes. Basically, with the jirga, it was decided that Naghma would no longer be engaged to the debtor, that the debt was satisfied, that none of the men would ever sell any of their daughters and that their daughters would all get to choose themselves who they want to marry and then that all their daughters would have the right to go to school. And it was filed with the government. So, if any of them renege on what they have signed, there would be criminal consequences to this.

MARTIN: I hope you don't mind me asking, but it's quite significant that this group of tribal elders would just cede their control and power over to someone they don't know, a foreigner, a woman. What was their incentive to do that?

MOTLEY: You know, I don't know. I think that I came to them in a very respectful way. Had I said to them we're having another jirga; you're not going to be there - that would be a totally different ending. This is what you do as a lawyer, as a litigator; you try to persuade people. And I was able to persuade them to allow me to be in charge of this.

MARTIN: Can you give an example of when you have had to come against the corruption endemic in the Afghan justice system?

MOTLEY: Pretty much with many of my cases, I'm always asked by judges for bribes. And so how they ask me is they sit there and they say, well, you know, I don't get paid this much. How much do judges in the U.S. make? And I just stop them and I say, you know what? I don't pay bribes. If there's any sort of inkling of anyone even insinuating that they want money, I just stop them right away.

MARTIN: So, it's been five years. A one-year job - temporary, you thought - as turned into something much bigger. You have your own private practice now in Kabul, but your family's still in the States. You've got a couple of kids. What keeps you there?

MOTLEY: Well, there's such a need for justice and such a need for good attorneys in Afghanistan. It's so grossly behind within the justice system that it is astonishing. And so I've been able to, to a certain extent, change some of the laws or some of the thinking within the justice system. You know, those are things that really propel me to continue on in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Kimberly Motley. She's an international litigator working in Afghanistan. Thanks so much for talking with us.

MOTLEY: Thank you for having me.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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