Four American students who went to Russia for a youth conference are safe back home in the Bay Area after they were detained, interrogated and put on trial for allegedly having "the wrong visas."
Bay Area Students Return After Being Interrogated, Put On Trial In Russia
The four students -- Liana Randazzo, 27, Quyen Ngo, 24, Jennifer Phan, 21, and Sterling Winter, 18 -- were supposed to be in Russia for two weeks for an international leadership conference, as representatives of the California Association of Student Councils. They were attending a closed-session meeting in St. Peterburg when Russian police and immigration officials barged in and demanded to see their visas.
“All of a sudden, all these people flood into the back of the room. And there are police officers, there is a news camera and there are people in really official looking uniforms talking to the director of the program,” Randazzo recalled.
The four were representing the California Association of Student Councils, a nonprofit designed to inspire and cultivate youth leadership.
But instead of another week of meetings with their Russian counterparts, they were detained and interrogated for seven hours under the guise of a passport check.
“We were basically told that we needed to start signing things or we were going to spend the night in the room,” Winter said. “And they purposely pulled us in and they fingerprinted us right next to the jail cells that were super dark and dreary.”
Then they were put on trial and represented by lawyers who don’t speak English. Their translator was a friend of a friend of the prosecutor.
They were put on trial, accused with using their visas for purposes other than what they had marked on their travel documents and having incomplete paperwork. Hardly grounds for setting off an international incident, but the bewildered students found themselves in front of a judge, facing the possibility of imprisonment. It became clear to the group that their detainment was about something bigger than mere visa violations:
The only way the group could go home was when a judge decided their fate hinged on four choices: he could issue them a warning, a fine, deport them or at worst, jail them.
"It became very clear that this wasn't just about us, that there was a bigger argument being made here," Randazzo said. "We told the truth. We kept it simple. There was a bigger picture that we weren't aware of and didn't understand."
The group's saving grace came from renowned Russian scientist Evgeny Velikhov, founder of a sister program in Russia that partners with the California Association of Student Councils, who flew from Moscow to St. Petersburg to testify on the group's behalf. They were ultimately fined $100 each for improper documentation.
What the heck happened? Why was this group singled out and prosecuted? Nobody really seems to know.
The students actually had another week of scheduled meetings, but it was decided they were better off just getting the heck out of Russia immediately. They arrived back in San Francisco on Tuesday.
More here: San Jose women, Chico teen detained in Russia