In May 2005, the government of Uzbekistan fired on a massive protest in the city of Andijon, killing over 700 of its own citizens. Within weeks, a joke began to circulate on Uzbek internet forums. It went something like this:
Q: Can an Uzbek participate in a demonstration in Uzbekistan?
A: Yes, but only once.
While meant to mock the brutality of the government of Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since its Soviet days, the joke is also a pointed jab at Uzbekistan’s legal system. In Uzbekistan, citizens are arrested, tortured and even killed for carrying out acts permitted by law. Uzbekistan advertises itself as a democracy, and has a constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression and the protection of human rights. When citizens act on their constitutional rights by criticising officials or organising non-violent protests, the government is quick to arrest them.
|«Corruption at the local level is so rampant that is has led to apathy among citizens, who are unaware of their rights.«|
Uzbekistan is one of many states in Central Asia where the rule of law has eroded. This is not to say that these states are unstable: the cruel irony of illegality in Central Asia is that it is a stabilising force. In Uzbekistan corruption at the state level is so pervasive that contesting state crimes is extremely difficult; corruption at the local level is so rampant that it has led to apathy among citizens, who are often unaware of their rights. But the existence of those rights raises an interesting question: what if people retained their faith in law after they lost their faith in government? What if citizens took the law at its word?
In 2010, a group of Uzbek lawyers created a website attempting to do just that. Adolat («Justice» in Uzbek) was established with the goal of raising legal literacy among Uzbek citizens and, in doing so, improving the rule of law in Uzbekistan. Adolat is not asking that laws be changed, only that they be followed by state officials as well as citizens.
Justice as radical subversion?
Adolat’s founders are adamant that they are not a opposition group and that they have no interest in upending the existing constitutional system – in fact, they have featured President Karimov’s statements on the importance of the law on their website. Despite its apolitical agenda, Adolat has been banned. In Uzbekistan, showing people how to follow the law constitutes an act of radical subversion.
It is no mystery why Uzbeks are forbidden to read Adolat. The website asks Uzbek citizens to buy into a delusion: that they live in a just society where laws are something other than words on a piece of paper. By pretending that laws have meaning, they implore the government to give them meaning – a step which the Karimov regime seems unwilling to take. Adolat’s legal experts encourage discussion of civic issues and answer questions submitted by readers. (Sample query: «Where can I complain about abuse by the police?») A lawyer who works for Adolat told me that the goal is not to «give fish» but to teach Uzbeks to «fish for themselves». He believes a regular reader of the site should by now be well-versed in writing an official complaint.
|«One Uzbek former state offical, when I asked him to define ‘guilt’, told me to look up ‘suspicious’ – because ‘in reality, suspicious is the same as guilty.’«|
The internet is often derided as a medium of inherent inaccuracy, the phrase «But I read it on the internet!» a punch line. But for Adolat, the internet serves as a way to turn Uzbekistan’s lip-service law into something sincere – an inversion of Uzbekistan’s cynical political culture, which extends to the Uzbek language itself.
Uzbek legal language implies that justice is an arbitrary construct. In layman’s terms, a defense attorney is an oqlovchi, literally a «whitener», and a prosecutor is a qoralovchi, or «darkener». Uzbek lawyers «whiten» or «darken» the aybdor – a term which means the defendant but literally translates as «the guilty one». Justice is reduced to theatrics and spin, fodder for jokes and sarcasm. The grim practices of Uzbekistan’s legal system underline this fact. One Uzbek former state official, when I asked him to define «guilt», told me to look up «suspicious» – because «in reality, suspicious is the same as guilty».
A growing trend in Central Asia
In contrast, Adolat takes care to explicate Uzbekistan’s legal code as well as introduce Uzbeks to unfamiliar legal concepts. A recent article was titled «Presumption of innocence [in Uzbek, literally «guiltlessness»]: a history and explanation» – a concept foreign to Uzbekistan in both theory and practice.
«Presumption of innocence» is one of many terms pertaining to law and politics entered into Uzbek language via the internet. Several years ago, the Birdamlik Movement, an Uzbek opposition group, tried to bring the phrase «non-violent protest» into Uzbek online discourse. The term was met with confusion not because Uzbek protest is violent, but because it is almost non-existent. One Uzbek, after reading the definition, asked whether a protest would still be considered non-violent after the government had killed the protesters.
Adolat’s efforts are part of a growing trend in Central Asia of citizens filling in where their states have failed. In Tajikistan, lawyers have created a similar online service for citizens to seek advice on legal affairs. In Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan, volunteer organisations have emerged to carry out civic acts the governments fail to accomplish: rebuilding infrastructure, providing childcare and issuing loans. While many of these informal groups have been criticized by state officials, their numbers continue to grow. One analyst credits this trend to «a spirit of civic volunteerism that has existed in Central Asia for centuries».
And that is the tragedy of this situation. A new class of young, enterprising Central Asians has emerged, committed to the rule of law and ready to serve their countrymen – if their governments would only let them.
The author would like to emphasise that the views in this piece are her own, and should not be attributed to the writers of Adolat.net. She would also like to stress that Adolat.net is not a political organisation but a website dedicated to educating Uzbeks on their legal rights.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist at Washington University in St Louis who studies politics and digital media.