Three members of Pussy Riot, a group of Russian feminist activists that has challenged the Kremlin, went on trial in Moscow Monday. Pussy Riot is a punk-rock collective that stages political impromptu performances all across Moscow, most recently an anti–Vladmir Putin demonstration inside a cathedral, an act which may now land the women in jail for up to seven years.

The trio have been charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility” for their performance in February when they entered the Christ Saviour Cathedral, ascended the altar and called on the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out!”

Reuters reports that conservative writers and church leaders have demanded harsh punishment, while civil rights groups say a long prison sentence would be out of proportion with the crime, and prove that Putin is determined to crush opposing voices.

The women deny that their performance was motivated by religious hatred.

Reuters:

Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, were brought to Moscow’s Khamovniki court for Russia’s highest-profile trial since another opponent of Putin, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was convicted of embezzlement in 2010 in the same courtroom.

Supporters chanted “Girls, we’re with you!” and “Victory!” as the women, each handcuffed by the wrist to a female officer, were escorted from a police van into the courthouse.

The group’s members have consistently maintained that their protest was political and that they meant no harm to Christians.

“We did not want to offend anybody,” Tolokonnikova said from the same metal and clear-plastic courtroom cage where Khodorkovsky sat with his business partner during their trial.

“Our motives were exclusively political.”

Observers say the women look thinner and paler than they did when they were jailed in late February following a staged hunger strike in protest to the court limiting their time to study the prosecution’s case ahead of their trial.

“I have studied only two volumes out of the seven. What I have studied proves there is no case against me. I need more time to study the materials, because my life depends on it,” announced Tolokonnikova.

“I declare a hunger strike, because this is unlawful.”

“She looks like she has been on a long hunger strike,” Stanislav Samutsevich said of his daughter. “I think this is like an inquisition, like mockery.”

Samutsevich addressed the court in a statement and said their case marked “the start of a campaign of authoritarian, repressive measures aimed to…spread fear among political active citizens.”

One trial witness, Lyubov Sokologorskaya, who works at the cathedral and describes herself as a “profound believer,” insists only clerics are allowed on the church altar, and the defendants offended the faithful by exposing their shoulders, wearing short skirts and engaging in “aggressive” dance moves.

Pussy Riot sees themselves as an outlet for marginalized citizens disillusioned with Putin’s twelve years of dominance in the political arena.

In this way, the collective resembles Occupy Wall Street and the “Mexican Spring” movement Yo Soy 132, both groups that represent citizens unsatisfied with the ruling hegemony, and looking to radically change the way government and monopolistic corporations operate. Few Russians actually believe the country’s courts are independent, and Prime Minister Medvedev acknowledged during his 2008–12 presidency that they were subject to political pressure.

Their philosophy is one shared by many in Russia, and at its pinnacle, the anti-establishment movement saw 100,000 people turn out for rallies in Moscow, some of the largest protests since the Soviet Union’s demise.

Amnesty International said the activists “must be released immediately” and that the prison terms they face if convicted are “wildly out of all proportion.”

“They dared to attack the two pillars of the modern Russian establishment—the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church,” regional program director John Dalhuisen said in a statement.

While the outcome of the trial is unclear, the ultimate fate of Pussy Riot is not. Activists wear masks during performances, allowing for amorphous membership.

“[The mask] means that really everybody can be Pussy Riot.… we just show people what the people can do,” said a member calling herself Sparrow when speaking to the Guardian.

Furthermore, the women’s incarceration has served only to send the Pussy Riot message global, with solidarity demonstrations cropping up everywhere from the Eiffel Tower to the United States to outside the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv.

Freepussyriot.org, a website started as a forum to support the women, now has coordinators in at least six countries and receives submissions from Prague, Dresden, Mexico City, San Francisco and Helsinki. Mother Jones reports a formal Pussy Riot exhibition launched at Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art museum in Paris.

Permanent Wave, an American feminist art network, has been throwing benefit shows for Pussy Riot’s legal defense fund in Brooklyn, and in one night raised $1,268 for the trio.

“Crackdown on individual freedom of expression is of incredible concern,” Amy Klein, a punk musician, writer, and founder of Permanent Wave said to Mother Jones before the collective’s second Pussy Riot event. “The arts have always served the purpose of shining a light on and critiquing dominant ways of thinking, and if we can’t have that be true all over the world, then it’s sort of—what’s the point in having artists anyway?”