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The Former Beauty Queen Lawyering in Afghanistan's Sharia Courts

An excerpt from journalist Kevin Sites's new book, Swimming with Warlords.

Kevin Sites is a war correspondent who VICE and several other major media companies like CNN, ABC, and NBC have sent into some of the most unstable and dangerous places in the world. He's that rare breed of reporter who can skip through a battlefield like he's hopscotching on a playground. The dude reported from 20 different hotzones in a single year, has been shot at more times than he can count, and was once kidnapped in Iraq—all that and he still has a stiff chin and wavy hair like Jesus.


Kevin is also a really busy dude. In addition to filing dispatches from the front lines of the battle for Iraq between the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Islamic State for the upcoming November issue of VICE, he also just published a new book called Swimming with Warlords. The book is based off of reporting he did for us last year on the US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.

His publisher, Harper Collins, was kind enough to give us a little excerpt from it to share with you. The following selection covers an aspect of his trip through Afghanistan in 2013 that he didn't dive into in his dispatches for VICE. It's from the new book's "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" chapter and it explores the legal framework that exists in Afghanistan right now. Kevin discusses everything from the country's widespread legal corruption and the Taliban's traveling Sharia law courts to the foreigners languishing in Afghan prisons. He also introduces us to Kimberly Motley, a former Mrs. Wisconsin beauty pageant winner who has become a top criminal defense attorney in Kabul. Give it a read below and then buy the book on

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When the Taliban first came to power in 1996, many Afghans like Haroon were cautiously optimistic. Since the Russian withdrawal and the fall of the communist government of Muhammad Najibullah in 1992, there had been incessant corruption and intensified fighting among warlords. Kabul had nearly been destroyed in the process. But in the regions that they controlled before taking the capital, the Taliban had proven to be effective administrators, curbing corruption and protecting roads and businesses so commerce could again flourish. Most critically, the Taliban applied the rule of law in a nation that had become lawless. Their courts heard grievances quickly and meted out justice just as swiftly.


The law the Taliban applied was sharia. Literally meaning “path to water” in Arabic (its necessity being as essentially to life as the path to water in the desert), it is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Qur'anic verse and examples of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Sharia’s moral code is broad, addressing issues of crime, economics, and politics, as well as personal issues of diet, hygiene, prayer, and sex. Although its interpretation varies from country to country, the Taliban considered it the infallible law of God. Their interpretation was infamously harsh and prescribed medieval punishments: cutting off hands for theft, flogging and stoning death for adultery, hanging for rape and murder. Executions were often carried out in public. In Kabul, they were done before thousands at the former Olympic soccer stadium.

But while these methods were brutal, a good many Afghans could still see God’s justice in them. Rather, it was the enforcement of myriad lesser dictates that began to diminish local support for the Taliban. Television was banned, as was music, dancing, pet ownership, and the depiction of humans or animals in photographs or drawings. Religious police from the Taliban’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice would beat men whose beards weren’t long enough (a fist length from the chin) and women who were not completely covered from head to toe in burqa. Women were eventually forced off the streets completely unless accompanied by a male relative, becoming prisoners in their own homes. This caused Physicians for Human Rights to issue a statement in 1998 declaring “no other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest, prohibiting them on pain of physical punishment.”1


When the Taliban were driven from power in 2001, people, especially in the capital, were eager to embrace the freedoms that they had lost. Women began to participate in society again, although not without continued challenges to their rights. Music and art reemerged, and the Afghan media exploded with newspapers, news agencies, and dozens of television stations—as many as 76 by some estimates—many of them focusing on programming for specific ethnic communities. But while the Taliban’s legal and judicial ideology has been mostly abandoned in the past 12 years, many Afghans still feel that the pursuit of real justice is impossible under the current government.

As former Northern Alliance commander Moammar Hassan said to me during our talk in Taloqan earlier in my journey, the bribery-infested Afghan justice system had frustrated citizens so much that many actually preferred settling their disputes with the Taliban’s traveling sharia law courts instead of relying on the government.

Many Afghanistan watchers believe that the public’s perception of a justice system, once again paralyzed by corruption, is one of the issues that will determine whether the Afghan state survives in its current form following the withdrawal of US forces in 2014.

The United States had become so concerned about the issue of equal justice that the State Department created the Justice Sector Support Program (JSSP) in 2005, which brought in US attorneys to help mentor their Afghan counterparts. And in 2008, a Milwaukee criminal defense attorney named Kimberly Motley, who had never before traveled outside the US, decided that she would give the program a try for a year, despite having to leave her husband and three children behind.


Her lack of overseas experience hardly meant that Motley would be an innocent abroad. She had grown up in a rough part of Milwaukee, one of four children of an African American father and a Korean mother. Her father was stationed in Korea with the air force when he met and married her mother in Seoul, after which they returned to the States to start a family.

After he left the military, Motley’s father was seriously injured in a car accident, and because the insurance company denied his claim, the family fell on difficult times. Still, Motley recalls, her parents instilled in their children a sense of independence and an entrepreneurial spirit. She helped support the family with a paper route and the money she earned from dozens of essay contests she regularly entered.

Motley says the insurance company’s unfair treatment of her father inspired her to study law, and after graduating from Marquette Law School, she became a public defender, representing indigent clients accused of drug-related crimes, gun violations, and murder. Between cases, she found time to get married and have children. But family life didn’t diminish her ambition, and on a dare by a friend, she entered and won the Mrs. Wisconsin beauty pageant and went on to win the national contest, taking the title of Mrs. America in 2004.

This may seem to make Motley an unlikely candidate for a full-year deployment to a war zone, but as she’s since proved, she enjoys defying people’s expectations.


She found chaos awaiting her in Afghanistan. While with JSSP, Motley spent a lot time speaking with Afghan judges, attorneys and visiting prisons and detention centers. She says she routinely saw the rights of defendants violated; many were denied access to lawyers or even the right to speak in court to offer their own defense. She’d even seen people convicted with little or even no evidence against them.

“There was a lot of unfortunate corruption in the system,” Motley said in 2012 BBC interview. “People would pay to get lesser sentences, and it was pretty obvious.”2

Motely says her work with JSSP seemed to make little difference, and she became disillusioned with what she considered a hands-off approach. “We spent a lot of time writing reports on capacity-building,” she recalls.

The Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has criticized the State Department’s Justice Sector Support Program as well, stating that their interviews with contractors like Motley found that “some JSSP contract requirements were poorly defined, resulting in useless deliverables.”

In other words, the program’s impact was questionable. But JSSP’s website paints a different picture.

“The program’s main goal,” it states, “is to help create sustainable improvements in the Afghan government’s supply of justice to the Afghan people. Together, we have trained over 2,000 Afghan investigators, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys within the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Attorney General’s Office (AGO), Ministry of Interior (MOI), and the Supreme Court.”3


There were a lot of foreigners languishing in Afghan prisons, clogged in a process too byzantine for them to navigate. And in that misfortune that Motley found a business opportunity. She remained in Afghanistan after finishing her obligations to JSSP, taking on some of those imprisoned foreigners as clients. One of them was a former British military officer turned security contractor named Bill Shaw, who had been accused of attempting to bribe Afghan authorities to release vehicles they impounded from his company, G4S. While the British Embassy seemed unable to do much for him, he credits Motley with negotiating his release back in July 2010, after he spent five months in Afghanistan’s notorious Pul-e-Chakri Prison.

The case won her the respect of the expat community, and in the five years since she first hung out her shingle in Afghanistan, many more victories have followed. She claims a 90 percent release rate for incarcerated clients and is on the mobile phone speed dials of so many embassies and foreign workers there that she’s been nicknamed “9-1-1.”

Securing the release of high-profile criminal defendants like Shaw helped bring in paying clients, and Motley knew the public relations value of pro bono work. While working behind the scenes for jailed expats, she’s garnered global headlines with cases on behalf of Afghan child brides and rape survivors.

One of the most celebrated is the 2012 case of a woman named Gulnaz, jailed for adultery after she’d been raped by a member of her extended family. Motley submitted a pardon request to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and after turning up the heat by doing dozens of interviews with the international media, succeeded in winning a pardon. It was Karzai’s first pardon in a case considered a “moral crime.”


Motley says that two-thirds of her cases are pro bono, while her work representing the business interests of international corporations and embassies brings in the money. While she collected fawning profiles in high-end publications like Vanity Fair that played up her altruistic beauty queen credentials, it was Motley’s business model that fascinated me: not only was she was making bank in Afghan’s war zone economy, but the very existence of her practice highlighted the legendary corruption of the Afghan legal system and the failure of the American mentoring programs to turn it around. I wanted to meet her.

I made arrangements for Haroon and I to go to her office in the Saripul neighborhood of Kabul, not far from the American Embassy. When we arrived, she was talking with one of her assistants, trying to arrange to get her air-conditioning repaired. Her office was impressive, covered in Persian rugs with a large, ornately carved wooden desk in the center of the room. She wore a loose tunic over jeans, and her hair was pulled back to reveal cylindrical metal earrings the circumference of oatmeal cookies. She had a broad smile and a casual manner. We sat and talked for a bit before went on some legal errands around Kabul. Haroon and I tagged along.

She negotiated Kabul’s streets and courts gracefully—and without a headscarf. While she’d worn one initially, she found that in the legal system, men respected her more without it. And with Motley, that respect went both ways.


“Before I took a single case,” she told me, “I went to the Afghan Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office, the Afghan Bar Association, and the Ministry of Justice to pay them the proper respect by letting them know what I was doing.”

She said none of them had a problem with her working in the Afghan courts despite not being a member of the bar or an expert in Sharia law.

“I don’t know everything about Sharia law and frankly I don’t have to,” she said. “That’s not my job.”

She speaks neither Dari nor Pashto, Afghanistan’s two main languages, and relies on computers and her legal assistant to translate legal text and passages from the Qur'an. She is currently the only Western trial lawyer in Afghanistan, and she makes no apologies or excuses that her practice is a for-profit business.

Her activities have earned her plenty of enmity—weekly threats of kidnapping, rape, and death. (A grenade was thrown into her compound in February 2014 but did not explode, and no one was injured in the attack.) Motley nonetheless moves around Afghanistan’s capital and outlying areas as if she’s untouchable. She’s received eight arrest warrants issued by various government entities, all of which she’s gotten dismissed as harassment by a boys-only club not sure what to make of a female American lawyer running circles around them in their own courts.

Our first stop was the customs office, where the Afghan government had impounded the de-mining vehicle of one of her clients. She’s come to find out what it’s going to take to get it released. As we passed through the gates, one of the guards told her he’d seen her on television—not in a courtroom but on a cooking show. Motley has become a bona fide celebrity, from the Afghan airwaves to the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force, where she teaches a spinning class.


Inside she charms one of the clerks, giving him more attention than he’s probably had in his whole career. When they’re finished, she has information she can use and makes

a note of the legal paperwork that will need to be filed to get the process started.

Our final stop for the day was Pul-e-Chakri Prison, where Motley took us to meet with one of her clients. Also known as the Afghan National Detention Facility, the prison was constructed in the 1970s. From the air, the compound looks almost like an “alien” crop circle—a giant, rectangular stone wall encasing an eight-spoked wagon wheel. Each of those spokes is a lettered cell block, A through H. The prison was notorious for institutional torture and executions. A mass grave was discovered near the prison in 2006; it held the remains of some two thousand people, believed by the Afghan government to have been killed between 1978 and 1986 during the Soviet-backed communist regime.

Haroon and I had first come to Pul-e-Chakri for a story back in 2001. At that time the entire facility was empty. Retreating Taliban had abandoned it, and all the inmates escaped soon after.

It was an eerie place. We walked through the dank, moldy, vacant cells, sifting through the clothing, shoes, and personal belonging that prisoners had left behind. What looked like the solitary confinement area was a series of tiny cells, no larger than shower stalls, with barely enough room to lie down. I walked into one, and Haroon closed the gate behind me. It was claustrophobic, even for the few minutes I was confined.


Since that time it has been renovated by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and it is once again filled with prisoners. The one we came to see was Bevan Campbell, a former major in the South African Air Force turned Afghan security contractor, who had been sentenced to sixteen years after being apprehended at the Kabul Airport, allegedly for smuggling six kilos of heroin. Campbell said he thought the substance was protein powder, which he’d been given by a friend.

Motley said that through a reduction in sentencing, Campbell, who had already served nearly six years, was scheduled to be released that week, but it hadn’t happened. She came to find out why.

Campbell was being held in a special unit outside for expats, political prisoners, and terrorists, including Taliban, Al Qaeda, and suicide bombers. Campbell was a big burly guy with shaggy hair wearing a rugby shirt, track pants, and flip-flops. He looked as though he had just woken up even though it was late in the afternoon.

“So tell me what happened,” Motley said to him.

He sighed loudly, then explained he had been taken to another facility and was about to be released when an officer demanded $10,000 before the senior prosecutor would sign the release papers. Campbell said that it had happened so many times that it had become a running joke.

“I’m not paying a cent,” Campbell said angrily, “I’ve been here too long already. When the Taliban come back to power, that’s when I’ll get out. I get along with them better than the rest,” he told me. “They’re disciplined and clean at least, better than the rest of the garbage in here.”


But Campbell reserved his greatest contempt for the Afghan justice system and what he considered the weak international effort to reform it.

“When I think of whoever is in charge of mentoring these guys or trying reform the system, it’s a fucking failure,” he said. “It’s just wallpapering. Nothing’s changed, and that is why the Taliban will be able to come back.”

Motley asked him a few more questions, scribbled some notes, and told him she needed to head out to another meeting. I asked if we could see his cell before we left. He took us down the concrete hallway and stopped in front of a room crisscrossed with iron bars, the kind covering the cells in old prisons like Alcatraz. He shared the cell with an Australian, another of Motley’s clients, a security contractor accused of murder that didn’t want to be identified.

Inside the room were two small beds, some pots, and a gas cooking stove. There was a small compartment on one side with a toilet and an area to bathe with a bucket and water from the tap. Campbell had covered two walls with hundreds of dates in neatly penned columns, days, he said, when the system “had really fucked him.” He didn’t elaborate, but Amnesty International, which also took on his case, argued that he’d been subjected to the equivalent of “mental torture” officials had gone through the motions of releasing him on one hundred different occasions only to return him to his cell. Campbell had been in Pul-e-Chakri long enough that he had become fluent in both Dari and Pashto.


Once outside, I asked Motley about the bribes Campbell had mentioned. She said she was going to look into the allegations, but it wouldn’t do any good to start off accusing people; in this system, subtlety was important. But she was unequivocal: bribes are not part of her business plan.

“I don’t take bribes, I don’t pay bribes. That’s not how I roll,” she told me, nonchalantly pointing out a guard shack where she said she once had to stay during a prison riot at lock down. “They had Sesame Street on the television, so we watched Elmo while guards in riot gear ran by.”

No place for a beauty queen, I thought. But I knew that being so reductive was an insult to all she had accomplished. She was using an outsider’s perspective to get things done, and while she has been criticized by some in the Afghan Ministry of Justice for grandstanding and profiting from a developing system still in disarray, she is doing exactly what she’d set out to do: create a profitable business with some do-gooder stuff on the side. What her critics seemed most angry about was that she had also exposed their failures in the process.

“It is my responsibility to point out the weakness in the system,” Motley told me, “but I don’t stand up on a soap box and criticize capacity-building programs. I do what I can.”

 It is her insistence on transparency, she said, that has made her so successful; it’s the very thing Afghanistan is most lacking: In Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index, Afghanistan tied with North Korea and Somalia as the most corrupt nation on earth.

Motley believes that foreign investment in Afghanistan’s natural resources, like precious metals, is the way out of its turmoil, and she’s been approached by India, China, and other nations to represent their commercial interests.

“I’m not an activist. I’m an international litigator. I don’t march, I go to court,” she said, “What’s going to help the country is economic development. And yes, I’m very blessed with the clients I represent—but I encourage them to become involved in Afghanistan by developing human capital as well. I tell them to invest in people because it’s also good from a commercial aspect.”

While she’s made both money and headlines in Afghanistan, it’s hardly been a cakewalk. She’s had to leave her husband and children back in the US for many months at a time. She says she will be in Afghanistan for a while after the 2014 withdrawal. “I still have clients that need my help,” she said, “and it would appear a little opportunistic to head out right away.”

But she also said she feels like she’s perhaps reached the limit of what she can safely achieve. She’s already looking for new opportunities around the world, maybe in other failing states where she can both make some money and do some good; the need for a business like hers signals serious problems with a nation’s legal system that others needed to know about. She could make it a trifecta, I thought, by heading to North Korea and Somalia next.

Bevan Campbell was finally released from Pul-e-Chakri prison on November 12, 2013, after Kimberly Motley secured a pardon for him from President Hamid Karzai. He returned to his home in South Africa after spending six and a half years in Afghan jails.

1Vincent Iacopino and Zohra Rasekh, “The Taliban’s War on Women: A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan.” A report for Physicians for Human Rights,August 1998.

2 Stephanie Hegarty, “Kimberly Motley: Making Waves in Afghanistan’s Legal System,” BBC News Magazine, March 13, 2012,

3“Afghanistan Program Overview,” website of the US Department of State,

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