In their first U.S. public appearance, the legal team for the persecuted activist punk group Pussy Riot spoke at a hastily arranged press conference at New York University today. Speaking to a packed hall at NYU's law school, the attorneys pounded home the message that the state's prosecution of Pussy Riot is purely political, and stressed their clients' innocence.

The attorneys—Mark Feygin, Nikolai Polozov and Violetta Volkova—spoke (via an interpreter, NYU professor Eliot Borenstein) about the case and took questions for 90 minutes, along with their assistant, Alisa Obraztsova. Also present was Piotr Verzilov, husband of one of the imprisoned band members, and his toddler daughter.

Three members of the band—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich—were sentenced to two years in a labor camp after they staged a 40-second performance in Moscow's main cathedral, which they recorded for a music video in which they pray for Vladimir Putin's downfall. Amnesty International has declared them prisoners of conscience, and the sentence has been criticized internationally as a violation of human rights in a Russia that has seemingly not left its autocratic past behind.

Performance artist Karen Finley started off the proceedings with a poem in tribute to Pussy Riot. "We are all Pussy Riot," she thundered from the lectern, and proceeded to align the group members with persecuted and outspoken women throughout history, from Mary Magdelene to Frida Kahlo to Gertrude Stein ("a pussy is a pussy is a riot") and Georgia O'Keeffe (who "painted pussy like no other").

The lawyers pointed out that Pussy Riot chose the cathedral not out of religious hatred, as the state has charged, but to point out the close relationship between church and state in today's Russia. A principal of the church endorsed Putin during his campaign, saying "I believe in Putin." "He should believe in God," Pussy Riot has stated, according to Obraztsova, who pointed out that this close relationship between church and state was little discussed in Russia before Pussy Riot's demonstrations.

The team pointed out repeatedly that the women's offense should have been covered under an administrative law that would have imposed a $30 fine.

The attorneys might expect, on their return to Moscow, to be summoned by the state and have their offices searched, they said in answer to a question about what risks they run by representing their clients.

Elaborating, they painted a chilling picture of the position of attorneys in Russia. For example, after attending a protest their clients staged in Moscow as legal observers, they said, they were called in as witnesses in the state's investigation. Witnesses can be instantly named as accused parties at the state's whim, they added.

Verzilov explained to A.i.A. after the panel that he and the legal team had just come from five days in Washington, D.C., "meeting with senators, with the president, with Amnesty International and so on."

"I met with [my imprisoned wife] in prison on Monday," he told the crowd. "I told her I was going to the United States and that I would be meeting Yoko Ono." Ono today called for the three women's release, according to a story in the Toronto Star. "‘Great,' she told me. ‘I'm sitting here in prison and you get to meet Yoko Ono. That's cool.'"

NYU law professor Amy Adler told A.i.A., "I had scheduled a makeup session for my Free Speech class for this afternoon, and then when I heard they would be in the U.S., we put this together on very short notice."

A representative of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Danny Auron, asked about the status of Pussy Riot's legal appeal. "It is not an appeal," Feygin responded. "It's important to make this clear. There are no appeals. It is a constitutional re-examination of the case. It is the last chance to get the case re-examined."

Their "re-examination" is scheduled for Oct. 1.