MOSCOW — They snicker and whisper in the defendants' cage while their lawyers wrangle over evidence -- a ragtag pair of Chechen brothers and a crooked ex-cop, alleged lookouts and errand runners in a crime that has become an overarching symbol for unsolved violence against some of Russia's most outspoken critics.
A verdict is expected as early as today in the trial of the three men charged as accessories in the shooting death of hard-charging journalist Anna Politkovskaya. But there is a pervasive sense that the trial is tangential, that the evidence is patchy and that the Russian government has only skimmed the edges of the crime rather than dug at its roots.
Conspicuously missing from the cramped courtroom is anyone accused of pulling the trigger or ordering or paying for the slaying. Lawyers say evidence has linked the crime to the FSB, domestic successor of the KGB, but has failed to reveal how far up the ranks of intelligence services the plan to kill Politkovskaya reached.
This trial is supposed to be a start; investigators say they are preparing a case against the missing mastermind and killer. But many close to the case worry that if these defendants are convicted, the complicated search for the killers will fizzle.
"If the verdict is guilty, nobody will be looking for the real murderers," said Murad Musayev, lawyer for Dzhabrail Makhmudov, the younger Chechen brother. "They will mark the Anna Politkovskaya case closed. I'm sure that's what they're trying to do."
Like many of the contract killings and much of the rampant corruption of today's Russia, the trial has transpired in plain view, yet somehow out of sight. The small yellow courtroom with drafty windows, claustrophobic wooden benches and no clock is a quiet epicenter in a turbulent country.
Beyond the walls, many Russians display no more than passing curiosity about who killed Politkovskaya, or about other journalists and lawyers who have been the victims of mysterious, unsolved attacks.
Politkovskaya was shot dead at close range as she arrived home from the grocery store on an October night in 2006. Her columns, which accused then-President Vladimir Putin of creating an atmosphere of lawlessness and dredged up the sadistic underbelly of the Chechen wars, had irritated the Kremlin for years.
Putin, who is now prime minister, famously complained that her death was even more damaging to Russia's reputation than her devastating investigative reports. Since then, the government has strived to blame the killing on forces working from abroad to undermine Russia's credibility.
The defendants walked into the courtroom this week, wrists linked by handcuffs. The former policeman jots figures in a puzzle book; he has already done prison time for abusing his power. They are joined in the cage by an FSB officer, who is being tried simultaneously in a related case. Makhmudov, in a checked sweater, black hair sliding down over his eyes, is hunched behind his older brother.
Their mother, a round, sad-faced woman with her head swathed in a black Muslim scarf, rises tremulously from the hard benches to greet her boys.
Providing a window on contemporary Russia, the men in the cage are alleged gangsters tangled up together amid suspicions of racketeering, kidnapping and killing. Their tongues are tied, critics of the trial complain, by a code of silence and the unspoken agreements of security services.
A third brother has gone missing since the investigation began. He has been named as the suspected gunman, despite surveillance camera footage seen during this trial showing a man who doesn't appear to match his height or description.
The men in the cage say they have been framed, set up as scapegoats. By whom? They won't say.
"We have long ago been betrayed and sold by the authorities," the former policeman, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, yelled through the bars at one point as spectators and lawyers filtered from the courtroom. "I swear I have nothing to do with this, nothing!"
The jury arranged itself in two rows Monday, facing the cage. Backs to observers and journalists, Politkovskaya's grown son and daughter listened intently. They only want the truth, they told reporters.
When their lawyer, Karina Moskalenko, rose to make her final statement, her voice rang with indignation. She reminded the jury that Politkovskaya would never have forgiven them for finding an innocent man guilty.
Instead of rehashing the testimony, she spoke of Chechnya, saying that the two brutal wars in the southern breakaway republic had dehumanized Russians.
She discussed the officials who chafed at Politkovskaya's work, and complained that justice was elusive in Russian courts. She spoke disparagingly of the defendants, but argued that the Chechen brothers would have had no personal motive to attack a journalist who publicized the suffering of their people. Instead, Moskalenko blamed the "system."