California students held in Russia headed home

Four students from Northern California who travelled to Russia for a leadership conference had their trip cut short and were ordered home after Russian authorities said they had the wrong visas.

Liana Randazzo, 27, and Quygen Ngo, 24, of San Jose, and Jennifer Phan, 21, and Sterling Winter, 18, of Chico, traveled to St. Petersburg on Oct. 31 under a grant from an Oakland, California nonprofit to attend a two-week leadership conference.

Immigration authorities and police arrived at the conference unexpectedly Thursday and demanded to see their visas.

“This was a political statement the Russian government was trying to make,” said Scott Winter, who said his son and the others were interrogated and briefly detained while they were put on trial and fined the equivalent of $110 each.

June Thompson, the executive director of the nonprofit, the California Association of Student Councils, said Tuesday that Russian immigration authorities deported the students, accusing them of having obtained tourist visas when they should have had business visas.

Thompson said she understands that Russia is sensitive to concerns that Westerners may come to the country to engage in efforts to teach the locals about political activism that could be seen as encouraging opposition.

“If they get a sense of an American organization or any foreign money is coming in, then they have to register as a foreign agent,” Thompson said.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the four were “briefly detained in St. Petersburg before being released” and they were provided “all possible assistance.”

Thompson said the four handled the situation with extraordinary poise and clear thinking. They were returning to the U.S. on Tuesday afternoon and not available for comment.

The conference was being led by the Association of Young Leaders, a Russia-based association that teaches young people leadership skills.

Thompson says none of the students was harmed. They were expected to land at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday.

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