The presidents of Russia and Uzbekistan signed a military treaty at the Kremlin on Monday, forging an alliance that reasserts Moscow's influence in the former Soviet republic, which until recently was a U.S. ally.
The deal, which could foreshadow the establishment of a Russian military base there, allows each country the use of military installations on the other's territory. The agreement also calls for them to provide military aid to each other in the event either is facing "aggression."
Uzbekistan was a close ally of the United States, hosting a U.S. air base, until relations became severely strained over Uzbek troops' suppression of an uprising last May in the city of Andijan. In July, the Uzbek government gave U.S. forces six months to leave.
Monday's treaty was signed shortly after the Uzbek Supreme Court sentenced 15 people to 14 to 20 years in prison on charges of attempting to overthrow the government in the Andijan violence. Human rights groups condemned the seven-week proceeding as a show trial.
Although Russia historically has viewed the countries just beyond its borders as part of its sphere of influence, Western-leaning governments have come to power in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the past two years. Uzbekistan, however, is a rare case of loyalties shifting toward Moscow.
The Andijan killings led the United States and European Union to call for an independent international inquiry, a demand that President Islam Karimov rejected. China and Russia have both backed his version of events, that 187 people were killed, most of them extremists or local officials, in an uprising aimed at creating an Islamic state.
As Karimov, a former Soviet Communist leader, has become more estranged from the United States and Europe, Russia has continued to court him.
Karimov has made vague accusations that Western governments were behind the Andijan violence. After the signing ceremony Monday, he told reporters: "I think that certain forces will have to draw conclusions from new realities. If they target us, they also target Russia." He said the alliance showed "with whom our interests are connected and with whom we will build our future."
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that "an alliance is the most trusting level of relations for sovereign states," adding that it "brings our relations to a qualitatively new level and makes them as close as they can be."
Russian-Uzbek relations cooled after U.S. forces established a major base on Uzbek soil in 2001 to support the war in Afghanistan. The United States also had close cooperation with Uzbek security services. Human rights groups say the Bush administration has transferred terrorism suspects to Uzbekistan, which has a long history of employing torture in its prisons.
The Andijan uprising began May 13 when armed men broke into a prison and freed 23 prominent businessmen jailed on security charges. Crowds, angered by poverty and government repression, filled the streets in support. Troops then killed hundreds of demonstrators, most of whom were unarmed, according to witnesses and human rights groups.
The trial, which began Sept. 20, appeared heavily scripted to bolster the government's account of what happened, international observers said. All 15 defendants said they were "fully guilty" and some of them asked to be executed even though the state did not seek the death penalty.
They all thanked Karimov for his generosity in granting them a fair trial. Their defense lawyers made no attempt to challenge the government's case and often simply repeated it, observers said.
"Although fifteen defense attorneys sit at the table, the effect of their presence in the courtroom is negligible," Human Rights Watch said in a report. "They ask few questions. At best, the questions they ask are irrelevant to the proceedings. At worst, they further incriminate their own clients."
The defendants, reading from prepared scripts, said the protest was not a spontaneous expression of the public's frustration at conditions in the impoverished region, but an orchestrated plot that was financed and directed by Islamic extremists and other, unidentified "external destructive forces."
"It was hard to believe that some pressure was not put on the defendants," Andrea Berg, a researcher for Human Right Watch, told reporters outside the courthouse in Tashkent on Monday. "We think this was a show trial."
In court, only one witness challenged the official version of events. Makhbuba Zokirova, a 33-year-old housewife, told the court that soldiers had shot at people waving white flags.
"There were women, old women, pregnant women, children," Human Rights Watch quoted her as telling the court. "The women took off their scarves and men used them as white flags and went in front saying, 'Let women pass. If they have to kill, let them kill us.' But when we started walking, they didn't look at white flags. These people shot. I swear on my four children that they did."