Uzbekistan concludes “show trial”; signs defense pact with Russia

Human rights groups have strongly condemned the ruling by Uzbekistan’s supreme court finding 15 defendants guilty of terrorism and sentencing them up to 20 years for their role in the May violence in Andijan. “It was expected and some could even have been given the death penalty, but as the case had received such wide international publicity the authorities did not dare to give capital sentences,” said Tolib Yakubov, head of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU). “The trial was orchestrated.”

“The trial was neither open nor objective,” Surat Ikramov, head of the Independent Initiative Group of Human Rights Activists of Uzbekistan (IIGHRAU). “Almost all of the suspects were slandering themselves and pleading guilty, and it was clear that the whole process would go that way.”

Human Rights Watch also criticized the ruling. “The outcome was predictable,” said Holly Cartner, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director. “The defendants had no chance to mount a real defence, and the court was in no way independent.”

A 2003 report by the UN’s special rapporteur on torture stated that torture was “systematically” used in the country’s prisons and pre-trial detention facilities. Stated Cartner: “We are very concerned that the defendants may have been forced to confess under torture.”

The US State Department also cast doubts over the fairness of the trial. “We believe that these convictions are based on evidence that isn’t credible and a trial that isn’t fair,” said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. “We’ve expressed those concerns about this case from the very beginning and … there’s never been an independent investigation into the Andijan incidents,” he added. (IRIN, Nov. 15)

The verdict comes just as Pentagonā€”despite strong objections in Congressā€”announced it had paid Uzbekistan nearly $23 million for use of an air base that has been a hub for US operations in Afghanistan. In July, Uzbekistan gave the US six months to leave the Soviet-era Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, called K-2.

The Senate voted last month to delay the payment for a year, saying the US should not pay a corrupt, repressive government that has evicted US forces. But the measure was part of a bill that has not been signed into law. (Reuters, Nov. 17)

Especially ironic is that the payment was made Oct. 14, the same day that Russia and Uzbekistan signed a military treaty that effectively makes Uzbekistan Moscow’s main ally in Central Asia.

The “Treaty on Allied Relations” signed by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Islam Karimov in the Kremlin calls on the two countries to provide military aid to each other in the event of “aggression.” The pact also gives Russia and Uzbekistan “the right to use military installations” on each other’s territory “on the basis of separate agreements.” (The Hindu, Nov. 16)

Igor Torbakov writes for the conservative Jamestown Foundation:

As the Kremlin inked an alliance with Uzbekistan this week, the European Union banned arms sales to Tashkent and imposed visa restrictions on top Uzbek officials. While Russia may have scored a geopolitical victory in the short term, it will likely lose in the long run, some regional analysts suggest. Russia’s too-close ties with the repressive and unstable regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov will be a constant source of friction with the West. Furthermore, Russia’s new status as Tashkent’s principal political and military ally may draw it into an unsavory civil war in Uzbekistan, should Karimov’s ruling regime become locked in a bloody confrontation with domestic opponents.

On November 14, the leaders of Russia and Uzbekistan signed a treaty of alliance between their two countries. Both presidents and many commentators have already labeled the deal “unprecedented.” As recently as June 2004, Moscow and Tashkent concluded a treaty of strategic partnership. But with the signing of a new pact, the growing ties between Russia and Uzbekistan were upgraded, in the words of one commentary, to the level of a full-blown “military-strategic and defense alliance.” According to the draft treaty obtained by the Russian media, Moscow guarantees Tashkent its full backing in the event that the Karimov regime is threatened either from without or within. The new accord, some analysts argue, turns Uzbekistan into “Russia’s largest strategic bridgehead in Central Asia.”

Indeed, the current situation differs markedly from the one that existed only a year ago, when Karimov started his drift toward Russia but still kept his geopolitical options open, claiming that Uzbekistan had two equally important strategic partners — Washington and Moscow. But the Andijan massacre in May 2005 made sitting on the geopolitical fence impossible: both the United States and the EU reacted harshly to the ruthless suppression of the Fergana Valley riots. The Europeans and Americans’ unambiguous stance forced Karimov to turn his back on the West and fully embrace his “only true friend” — Russia.

Now, according to the available draft treaty, Moscow pledges to get involved if Karimov’s regime is endangered. The text also alludes to the possibility for Russia to establish a military base in Uzbekistan: “In case of necessity, the sides provide each other, on the basis of additional accords, the rights to use military installations situated on their territory.” As some defense analysts noted, now the Russian military can not only use around 10 Uzbek airfields, but Moscow can also start elaborating plans for a permanent deployment of Russian forces in Uzbekistan.

See our last post on Uzbekistan and the Great Game for Central Asia.